Subsidised Shakespeare

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RSC cuts

In 2011/12 the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) was the Arts Council’s fifth highest regularly funded organisation (RFO) with a grant of £16,413,895 (down from £17,639,392 the previous year) behind The Royal Opera House, Southbank Centre, National Theatre and English National Opera. These top five organisations account for a third of the Arts Council’s total RFO budget so they are always under pressure to justify their funding, particularly when Government spending is being cut elsewhere. In an article titled Why Major Theatre Institutions Should Be Left To Die The Guardian theatre critic, Lyn Gardner, argues that, ‘The artists of tomorrow are not made through funding an elite but by funding at the bottom of the pyramid’ and that rather than promoting participation in the arts, the big theatres suppress it.

Gardner is not the first journalist, or indeed tax payer, to question arts subsidy. When the last round of cuts was announced in April 2011  Quentin Letts in The Daily Mail agreed that in a recession the arts should share the same pain as everyone else and Charles Spencer in The Telegraph seemed to enjoy seeing theatre companies he didn’t like losing their funding. The American playwright, David Mamet, doesn’t think there should be any subsidy at all; in his book, Theatre, he said, ‘The theatre is a magnificent example of the workings of that particular bulwark of democracy, the free-market economy’. But Gardner is not anti-subsidy, she just disagrees with how it’s spent.

Arts Council funding is never just about the arts, they have a social agenda too; in 1984 the Glory Of The Garden report  emphasised regional development, in 2004 the Art Of Inclusion report stressed the role of the arts in tackling social divisions and in 2008 the McMaster Review put artistic excellence firmly, if controversially, in the top spot. The current Arts Council policy document, Achieving Great Art For Everyone includes an appendix which defines five goals for subsidised theatres accompanied by ‘areas of focus’ to tell them how to achieve them. The five goals are as follows, accompanied by what steps I think, as an audience-member, the RSC is taking to achieve them:

1. Talent and artistic excellence are thriving and celebrated. The areas of focus guidelines recommend ‘risk-taking, experimentation and ambition’ and ‘collaborations, including international ones’ so if you wondered why the RSC co-produced Troilus And Cressida with the American Wooster Group and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It) with the Russian Dmitry Krymov, that’s why.

2. The arts leadership and workforce are diverse and highly skilled. The black and Asian casts for Julius Caesar and Much Ado presumably contribute to this goal as will Erica Whyman’s appointment as deputy artistic director and the number of female directors scheduled for next season.

3. More people value and enjoy the arts. The areas of focus specify several actions to achieve this goal including; use London 2012 to reach new audiences, experiment with digital distribution and build the quality and range of theatre for young people. The RSC is leading the World Shakespeare Festival and therefore features prominently in the Year Of Shakespeare project; Greg Doran’s Julius Caesar was broadcast on television, Tim Crouch’s I, Cinna was streamed to schools via the internet and the RSC has created its own Shakespeare portal called MyShakespeare, The Young People’s Shakespeare is doing some great work and the Open Stages project is getting more people into that beautiful new theatre.

4. Every child and young person has the opportunity to experience the richness of the arts. Same area of focus as goal 3 and you could add the Stand Up For Shakespeare campaign, Matilda in the West End, a good education department and plenty of online resources for teachers.

5. The arts sector is sustainable, resilient and innovative. The area of focus says ‘Build on best practice to encourage environmental sustainability within the arts’. This one is hard to assess from the stalls but the RSC chairman, Nigel Hugill, has a track record in urban development so if anyone can enforce an environmental policy, I’m sure he can.

So the RSC is hitting all its Arts Council targets but when non-artistic objectives on diversity, environmental sustainability and digital technology outnumber artistic ones does that promote or stifle the arts? Commercial sponsorship can be as controversial as public subsidy, as the recent BP protests showed, so if we want great theatre, shouldn’t we just fund great theatre companies without conditions? Or is Lyn Gardner right and if the Arts Council is serious about diversity and participation, might they be better off giving £1 million a year to a diverse group of sixteen different companies? Or half a million to 32 companies? Or a quarter of a million to 64 companies?

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Author:Andrew Cowie

Andrew Cowie is an actor, director and freelance drama facilitator living in Birmingham, England
  • Tony

    Andrew, don’t forget that this was all against a background of a 52% increase in subsidy over the period!

  • Andrew Cowie

    Found it! Many thanks. In case anyone else is looking for the data, the Creative Scotland report summarises its findings as follows: “In an average year in the 1990s, building based theatre companies spent 39p of every £1 on programming and 61p on other overheads. By the 2000s this had reduced to 28p in the £ on programming and increased to 72p on other overheads. Over the same period the average number of in-house productions created by building based theatre companies reduced by 48%. The number of performances they gave reduced by 30% and attendances for their own shows reduced by 68%.”

  • Tony


    Re the evidence that more subsidy = less art = smaller audiences, here is the relevant Creative Scotland link;
    Download and open the PDF “Review of the Theatre Sector in Scotland” and go to p29. Start at para beginning ‘However …. and read through to p31 to the para heading ‘Cultural Context’
    The money went on admin, rather than the art! A clear example of what the economists call ‘rent-seeking’ behaviour.

    You ask if subsidising the stages rather than the production companies will create the “West End commercial theatre effect of widening the gap between major event shows like the big musicals and spoken plays only being staged if they have a small cast and a single set?”

    I cannot see why that should be so. Surely it was the subsidised theatres that introduced the ‘New Writing ‘ genre of tiny casts, short plays,& minimal props/costumes, because of their need to produce works that could be seen to be meeting the social targets. As this included giving minors and minorities ‘a voice’, we saw a stream of raw essays rather than fully finished works by mature artists.

    My main point is that the existing subsidised public stages can and must be open enough to show plays that reach beyond politics and the state. Your 1980s example serves to show how directly political (small p) the theatre production world can get when it is subsidised. In that environment, any production that was not transmitting the social message of the moment, and thus might risk the subsidy flow, had no chance of getting on a subsidised public stage.
    By contrast, the non-subsidised theatre was reduced to putting on shows that would stand an a-priori fair chance of making enough to cover the full costs (including taxation) of the production and the venue. It is not the greed for profit that drives these kinds of commercial decision, but the fear of loss! ( aka smaller audiences) So with this imperative, I don’t believe that those involved in commercial theatre had the ideological drive that you imply. But in the subsidised theatre sector, productions and the venues were insulated from this motivational fear of box-office loss ( aka smaller audiences) but it was replaced by the more generalised group-anxiety of loss of subsidy. We have all experienced such twitchy times in organisations, and know that the decisions were dominated by the likelihood of failure to be seen to be meeting the non-artistic ‘social’ targets that you illuminate. Hence a play that did not directly address these issues so that the target achievement could be claimed, just did not get put on.

    On your question of ‘artists being free to follow their artistic vision’; in a subsidised environment, the artists rather than the art is chosen, through the prism of the social targets, and then they are encouraged to articulate their ‘vision’ via questionnaires and proposals to the committee, rather than via their actual work and to their actual audiences. And we now know from the work done by the Arts Council and Creative Scotland, that the subsidy mainly goes on servicing the bureacratic subsidy process itself, and not to the artists, or the audience.

    So in summary, Lyn Gardner is right when she says “…rather than promoting participation in the arts, the big theatres suppress it.” … and we have the evidence to prove it. And my proposal is to treat these theaters as public spaces, as forums if you like, and fund them from the public purse.
    But what goes on them, should be subsidised directly by the public via as audiences.

  • Andrew Cowie

    Thanks for such a thoughtful response Tony. I’m interested in your reference to Creative Scotland; I can find lots of discussion about the potential damage in switching from long-term Arts Council funding to short-term Lottery funding, for example, Charlotte Higgins in The Guardian:, but I can’t find the Creative Scotland report which related subsidy to a decline in creative output, so could you post the link?
    I like your idea of funding venues and then letting the artists get on with finding sponsorship and box office income for themselves but wouldn’t that lead to the West End commercial theatre effect of widening the gap between major event shows like the big musicals and spoken plays only being staged if they have a small cast and a single set?
    People always worry that arts funders, whether they are commercial sponsors or the state, determine the content of the work they commission but do they really? The vast majority of the 1980s anti-Thatcher theatre was produced with Conservative government funding while the commercial theatre at the time completely bought into the Tory individualism agenda. Doesn’t an Arts Council grant which imposes social rather than artistic conditions meet the obligation to use tax-payers’ money sensibly whilst leaving artists free to pursue their artistic vision?

  • Tony

    “So the RSC is hitting all its Arts Council targets but when non-artistic objectives ….outnumber artistic ones does that …. stifle the arts?”

    Yes, because these are essentially political targets, and the arts are about individual voices speaking to us. We all know that committees cannot produce art.

    “… shouldn’t we just fund great theatre companies without conditions?”

    No, because that would make them Departments of State. In fact, the RSC and the RNT are both examples of such oligarchies. The theatre is the only public-political artform that can encompass the state, and so is able ‘to speak truths to kings’ as it were. To let the theatre become a dependent creature of the state is to stifle new ideas and democratic debate. In societies where that happened, we saw the consequent artistic corruption and democratic decay.

    “Or is Lyn Gardner right and if the Arts Council is serious about diversity and participation, might they be better off giving £1 million a year to a diverse group of sixteen different companies? ……”

    No. Certainly with regard to theatre, this method has failed.The recent theatre report from Creative Scotland contains graphic evidence that increasing the direct subsidy to theatre companies actually caused a decrease in artistic output, and a reduction in audiences! In other words, Mamet is right; state subsidy is poisonous to art. So if you want to kill more theatre, subsidise more companies.

    In a democracy these targeted ‘diverse/participatory’ groups are subsets of the population. Also in a democracy, what is subsidised needs to be accessible to the public at large, to justify the subsidy. As the common cost for all artists and all audiences is the venue, it follows that the most democratic solution is for the state to subsidise venues/galleries/stages when they are being used as public spaces, and to let the artists and their audiences fund the art. In this way, as all of the social diversity groups and potential participants are part of the polity, they will automatically receive the desired subsidy, on a fair and equal basis.

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