Social media is currently a-buzz with links to, and comments on, an article in the online edition of the Telegraph newspaper by Douglas McPherson entitled A critic’s plea: stop all arts funding now. The article’s standfirst is ‘In twenty years I can’t think of one publicly funded show that was any good – while every day commercial world creates amazing things without help’. I haven’t put the link here as you really don’t need it – grab a passing cab driver or pop down your local and you’ll hear the same cry: why do we need to fund artists from the public purse?
But before addressing that, a word of concern. We so easily fall into a clickbait trap with these sorts of articles. Like most free-to-view online publications, this newspaper relies on online advertising – and advertisers are wooed on the basis of the amount of traffic the site receives. Every time you click on or share the offending article you are boosting the newspaper’s coffers. Papers often run deliberately provocative articles like this to generate outrage (and thus endless commentary and shares on social media). It’s a kind of art-porn: you click, you read, the whole experience leaves you feeling sullied. Yes, I’m guilty. I clicked, I read, I got about a third of the way through, I hastily exited with a nasty taste in my mouth. What on earth was I thinking of? Resist, resist.
Rather bizarrely, the example given of a show that shouldn’t be funded with public money was the latest work by Australian circus company Circa, What Will Have Been, seen by McPherson (and me) at Norfolk & Norwich Festival this May. I loved it, he hated it. Fair enough, it’s only subjective opinion after all, and we are all entitled to express our opinions. They are Australian, so of course haven’t directly had any Arts Council or other British funding to make the show. But the company are indirectly funded here as it has a long and fruitful history of collaboration with Norfolk & Norwich, nurtured through former festival director Jonathan Holloway, current director William Galinsky, and producer Patrick Dickie (supported by others at Norfolk & Norwich Festival such as Matt Burman and Mikey Martins). All of these enterprising people have worked hard at creating a great circus-savvy audience in Norwich, who eagerly flock to shows by not only Circa, but other visiting luminaries such as Montreal’s Les Sept Doigts, and the terrific team who created Cantina (which transferred to Wonderground on the Southbank, as did Circa’s Beyond, after its premiere at Norwich Spiegeltent. Mc Pherson argues that Circa had full houses at £20 a head, so are commercially viable. The counter-argument is that Norwich, through its public money funding, has educated its audience and created that situation.
So why has he picked this particular example? Let’s stop here and reflect on who Douglas McPherson is, and what his motivation might be in picking on Circa (winners of a Total Theatre Award for Significant Contribution to Physical and Visual Performance – so firm favourites in this camp). Although this at first seems very odd, it doesn’t take much effort to unpick it. McPherson isn’t a Telegraph staff critic, he’s a freelancer who has written for many different publications. He has a strong interest in circus, and is author of a book called Circus Mania. Now, as former co-ordinator of the UK Circus Arts Forum (an organisation set up by Total Theatre in 2000, to support circus in all its manifestations) I know only too well of the horrendous and vicious in-fighting in the circus world, with many (although not all) people who work in or who support traditional circus harbouring an intense dislike of contemporary circus, particularly if it plays with form and crosses boundaries in the way that Circa’s work does so magnificently. I remember returning from the first-ever Circelation, a cross-artform professional development week for circus produced by the enterprising Chenine Bhathena, and getting an extremely angry phone call from Gerry Cottle, who berated me for supporting all this arty nonsense. McPherson is definitely in the camp that believes that circus is about glitz and glamour and tricks, not ‘arty nonsense’.
Arts funding quite obviously is instrumental in developing artforms and providing the fertile soil in which art in whatever form can grow and develop. Does that mean anyone and everyone who considers themselves to be an artist has a God-given right to public money? No, of course not. It is good and healthy to find ways to support yourself whilst establishing yourself as an artist. I’d argue that it is good to have ways to exist outside of total reliance on funding even when further down the line as an artist or theatre-maker. The company I co-direct, Ragroof Players, has a strand of work producing tea dances, parties and events that are self-sufficiently reliant on booking fees or box office income, and provide us with a much-need strand of income support.
But where we do get public funding, through ACE or Heritage Lottery, is in the creation of our street theatre and site-responsive or community-engaged shows – specific communities engaged with having included older people who love ballroom dancing (Shall We Dance?), boxers (Gloves On), teenagers (Youth Club) and migrants (our current project, Bridges).We create work that is free to audience – which seems to me should be a vital part of the arts funding sector. I feel passionately that art needs to be taken outdoors and into public spaces, not just sit in theatres and galleries – and if there is no box office, there is no income. The benefits are clear to see – a great example is the Stockton International Riverside Festival, set up by Frank Wilson in a downtrodden Northern town. Over many decades this has been the site for transformation each year when thousands of happy people hit the streets for four days of quality outdoor arts, featuring the likes of Wired Theatre and Periplum (and yes, Ragroof!). Of course, if you believe that there is no such thing as society, then the sight of a harmonious communal gathering of people from all strands of life having a collective joyful experience that enforces each person’s sense of a shared humanity might seem of little importance.
One of the other benefits of arts funding is that it nurtures work in its early stages that then goes on to be successful – and in some cases, that means the work can stand alone in the commercial world. Examples we could cite here include the National Theatre’s War Horse, which transferred to the West End and is still going strong. For a good reflection on treading the line between the funded and commercial worlds, see this excellent feature by Jo Crowley of 1927 on what her job as producer actually entails. There should be a culture of enterprise in the arts, where the relationship between different strands of income for an artist or company is up for consideration. In the coming years, we are all going to have to be looking to find means of support beyond arts funding, and to show the funders that we have other strands of income, That feels fine and good to me – I don’t want to exist exclusively on public money, and I’m willing to work hard on a portfolio of projects that receive funding from various sources, not just arts funding, combined with revenue from other sources. A word of caution here though about how we fund artists: there’s something of a trend for funding to come indirectly via venues or organisations, and although this works for some (Circa and Norwich seem to be a good example), for others it isn’t quite so cosy. Its the artists who know their own needs, and if experienced, can set their own budgets and production deadlines more easily if given free reign to do so, rather than be reliant on a collaboration with someone holding the purse-strings who doesn’t necessarily understand what’s needed and when.
This could go on for a lot longer, but I’ll finish here with a reminder to McPherson et al that when John Maynard Keynes set up the Arts Council, his aim was ‘to give courage, confidence and opportunity’ to artists and their audiences. That need is as strong now as it was then – and if a cash-strapped war-time Britain could find the funds for art then, it certainly can now. Winston Churchill may not have actually said ‘Then what are we fighting for?’ during a discussion on proposed wartime arts cuts – what he is documented as saying is this: ‘The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them. Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due’. And that’s from the mouth of a Tory…
Featured image is of Periplum’s 451, touring to outdoor arts festivals across the UK in 2015. Photo by Ray Gibson