What kind of Arts Council do we need?

As Peter Brook once remarked, theatre is now, and always has been, in crisis. Whatever the nature of the continuing existential threat that Brook Identified the truth is that theatre in Ireland (as in many other parts of the world) is facing a sustained economic and ideological challenge that will change how we conceive of, create, and experience theatre.

Theatre (and the performing arts in general) suffers, in an economic sense, from Baumol’s Cost Disease. Put simply this means that it costs more and more to stage the same event relative to the earning potential of that event. One of the first companies I formed when I graduated had a compliment of twelve actors and crew,  performed in an eighty seat theatre for twelve weeks and managed to pay a minimum wage to everybody for the twelve weeks of performance and the four weeks of pre-production while producing four different shows. This is impossible today. That’s Cost Disease.

Theatre also suffers under our dominant economic theory that argues for decreased state involvement in the economy, and the privatization of all public provision. The donor/patron model is an outgrowth of this neo-liberal thinking. Whatever about the dangers of patronage in terms of diversity and exclusion, the lie at the heart of patronage is clearly demonstrated by the Abbey’s ability to raise only €250,000 over the last three years of the boom time – and this with a dedicated fundraising team!

Theatre is under threat ideologically in a world that is trying its best to reduce the value of creativity to individual and social well-being – epitomized by the obsession with STEM subjects in the education debate – and position art as a consumer good, subject to free market forces.

Any theatre policy and strategy needs to take cognizance of the political reality of this context, but at the same time be aware that the theory and policy context is changing internationally: the value of creativity is – in purely market terms – rising, and the emerging opportunities are significant,  but based on the requirement that we start to do things very differently. This awareness is already present in Making Great Art Work with its emphasis on the Artist and Engagement.

The Council and its Head of Theatre have a wonderful challenge ahead. They need to demonstrate to the sector that there is a plan, that the artists are part of that plan, and that the plan is moving forward. This cannot be done if they are perceived as engaging in business as usual: rolling out new “funding tools”, making pronouncements, complaining that the government doesn’t take them seriously, etc.  What’s needed are effective initiatives, valid research, and inspiring policy.

The reality we all – artists, administrators, producers and council – have to face is that  the council cannot now, and will never be able to,  adequately fund individual artists and emerging organisations throughout their career; the market size is just too small to support the kind of industry the majority of practitioners dream about; the large clients that consume the lions share of available funding do not have the capacity to absorb the upflow of emerging talent; patronage and sponsorship are a deception for all but the largest organisations; and our political and bureaucratic class are not concerned with the arts in any meaningful way.

The priorities for all stakeholders in this situation are:

Engagement:

The Council and its Head of Theatre must focus on sector development and sustainability and drop the emphasis on excellence. It is impossible to legislate or fund for excellence. The sector – artists and organisations – need to be engaged with in such a way that the pursuit of excellence is a given. We need to work together to ensure that we are building and designing for long-term sustainability. We all need to buy into the priorities of Making Great Art Work, and understand that those priorities are not an end in themselves but a negotiable means to a common end.

Education and Research:

The Council needs to continually educate itself and the sector on developments in Policy and Practice. We all need to understand the growing importance internationally of process, participation and collaboration as opposed to product. We need to be aware of the place and responsibility of theatre in its specific community in terms of the development of social capital, skills acquisition, and networks; and we need to understand the place of theatre in the wider strategy of arts and urban development. Most importantly we need to understand the real impact of digital technology and thinking on the performing arts (which goes beyond asking “is there an app for this?”; the digital world is about networks and peer to peer collaboration, community and creativity,  as well technological stuff). This will require collaboration with key partners in the academic world for comprehensive briefings and workshops and focused, actionable research.

Collaboration and Responsiveness:

The growing importance of collaboration and participation  in arts practice needs to be mirrored in the relationship between, council and sector. Artists, organisations and Council need to work together in the design and development of policies and tools, developing a real and mutual understanding.  Most of all the Council needs to be Agile in its work practice and process. John O’Kane once said that the Council, as an institution, was like every public body: a big ship that takes a lot of time to turn around.  In a digital world that’s just not good enough any more – the rate of change within an organisation needs to match the rate of change in the world outside or the organisation becomes irrelevant.   So the Council, the department and the sector  need to examine and redesign work processes and work flows  so that we can respond quickly to changes in the environment and seize opportunities as they emerge. If massive multi-nationals can achieve a three month turnaround from product design to delivery then  so can we.

That’s the challenge. Talk about individual excellence is beside the point in the current climate. The whole sector needs to come together behind a single powerful vision and together design and build a sustainable sector that rewards the artist and serves and celebrates the audience.

“Akaba”, as Lawrence of Arabia said, “is over there: its simply a matter of going”.

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