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Matt Trueman: Austerity has left theatres in an impossible, contradictory position

Outgoing Bristol Old Vic chief executive Emma Stenning has voiced concerns that even after its recent refurbishment, increased revenue from the theatre's catering business will do no more than plug a gap left by funding cuts. Photo: Jon Craig
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A decade of austerity is, apparently, almost over. Believe it when you see it. Arts funding won’t go up any time soon. Our theatres have, so far, weathered the storm. But make no mistake, they are in a right pickle.

To survive a decade of funding cuts and standstills, Britain’s theatres have had to raise revenue elsewhere. Enhanced development departments have sprung into action, bolstering individual giving and corporate philanthropy. Box office income has had to bear more weight, by increasing sales, hiking prices or leveraging transfers and tours. Commercial trading has become crucial, with theatres more reliant on bar sales and room hires.

One might argue, as successive culture secretaries have, that this has made theatres more efficient. But this additional income is a sticking plaster. It plugs a gap, but it’s no replacement for subsidy. Funding may now account for a smaller proportion of turnover, but, meagre as it is, those organisations cannot survive without it.

The problem is that, at the same time as having to boost income, theatres have faced increased demands to justify their funding. Organisations have had to diversify their audiences, artists and their personnel, to prove their social utility and inclusivity with access schemes and outreach programmes, and to raise digital engagement to widen their reach. When arts leaders talk about having to do more with less, these are the things they mean.

Short funding terms, standstill grants and government cuts among key challenges for arts sector, claims Paul Hamlyn Foundation review

Taken together, however, the two things add up to one hell of a paradox, which risks pulling theatres apart at the seams. Being dependent on both earned income and public subsidy, theatres are having to pull in two directions at once. Make more money. Do more good.

Is it possible? In theory, it sort of stacks up. Theatres can be hydra-headed organisations, serving different audiences in different ways. A venue can appeal to donors in one way, and other demographics in another. You can open the cash register at one set of punters, while extending an open invitation to another set.

In practice, it’s not so straightforward. The two things are contradictory enough to cancel each other out. It’s all well and good encouraging new audiences, but if your cafe is flogging overpriced sarnies and fancy cocktails, how welcoming can you really hope to be? Every effort to diversify the stories told on your stages is undermined, if not undone, by programming old, reliable titles that offer the potential of a lucrative transfer.

Likewise, if maintaining the cheapest seats means pushing top prices up – the Robin Hood school of ticketing – you’re sending out mixed messages, maybe even triggering a trickle down of audiences that could end up squeezing people out. Deals designed to counteract social inequality end up exacerbating it.

This two-way thinking has taken its toll, and has left our theatres in an impossible position. Witness the exodus of executive directors in recent years. Austerity might be nearing its end, but the damage has long since been done.

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