Audience – People – Place

Andrew Ormston, Drew Wylie Projects – Article published in: Culture Shift: Creative Leadership for Audience-Centric Performing Arts Organisations, July 2015, ISBN: 978-0-9576843-9-3

Audience – People – Place

Abstract—Cultural production is, on the whole, a supplier led process.  Creating work is cherished as practice that is exempt from the full discipline of the demand side.  Cultural policy and related interventions are, as a consequence, about closing the loop of artist, audience, people and place.  However, policy is failing to keep up with the scale and pace of economic, social and cultural change.  Many people no longer see the established mainstream arts as a significant part of their lives.  Can we keep focus on the creative process, or do we go where the market takes us?

The Culture Shift meeting took place in Antwerp, overwhelming me with memories of my last visit, aged 16, as apprentice on the SS Border Castle.  This was a formative time and included my first experience of the programming ethos I later came to know as ‘the balanced’ approach to arts programming.  A quasi-commercial approach where the tribute music act or touring musical makes the box office income that allows you to promote the contemporary dance or music that doesn’t.  In Antwerp, in 1972, this meant taking on the three 16mm films that would be our onboard entertainment for a run to Port Salem.  I adopted a philosophy that I would later apply in a range of concert halls, theatres and arts centres.  One for the Deck Officers, one for the Engineers and one for me.  In this case, 1972, it may have  been  Cabaret, The Poseidon Adventure, and Solaris.  In my 1992 role it may have been The Madness of George III, Buddy, and Rosas.  The result was the same – happy deck officers, engineers and culture vultures.

There are venues in the UK that are less tied to balanced programme economics. The major arthouses are subsidised to focus on the art.  London’s West End is a commercial powerhouse with the figures to match: almost 15m. attendances and over £585m. of box office income in 2013. However, across the length and width of the UK programme balancing is the name of the programming game.  Many of these theatres and concert halls could almost be called relics of the pre-cinema age.  They were taken on by local authorities due to market failure, a process that began with cinema and ended with television. This led to hybridisation of commercial and subsidised programming, an approach which also informs the artistic and business plans of the newer phase of arts centre developments.  Migration of civic venues to independent ‘not for profit’ Trusts was a logical next step in allowing for arts subsidies and for more enterprising trading.

As a consequence, the performing arts, and theatre in particular, is a mixed economy of intertwined commercial, public and charitable interests and models.  The positive outcomes of this approach are many and various, and can be seen in every Oscar ceremony or major city theatre quarter.  The story since the banking crash is familiar to everyone, as its implications work through producers, promoters and audiences.  Market economics is the absolutely dominant recipe in the UK.  Again there have been many positive results, with commercial transfers from the subsidised theatre sector proving to be some of the most successful shows on both Broadway and the West End.  But there has been a cost.  Whereas access to culture may be considered a basic human right in most of Europe, in the UK, value of access to culture is defined as wealth creating.  As I write this English National Opera have been taken in hand (‘special measures’) by Arts Council England [1] for a failure to adopt a realistic business model, one which will include a partnership with West End musical producers.  Commercial success and failure are different sides of the same coin.  In this example it is the artistic leadership of the organisation that is under pressure, but the more pervasive result throughout the cultural sector has been the rise of exclusivity.

Last year’s Telegraph interview with Kevin Spacey raised alarm bells as he worried about theatre becoming an exclusive club and ticket prices driving young people away, with the average West End theatre ticket now about €68.  However, business remains brisk and the same article quoted a €712m. West End theatre box office in 2011, and talked about the variety of cheap seats made available through sponsors at the Old Vic and the National.   More recently the shadow culture minister, Chris Bryant, raised eyebrows with his concerns over the privileged backgrounds of today’s performers and a closing off of  meritocratic progression routes.  His call for a fairer arts funding system is to address concerns of a hollowing out of the arts, with whole sections of society no longer either explored by, or engaged with the sector [2].

As I was penning this paper a twitter exchange between two leading cultural researchers popped up: “Cultural value & inequality: for non-white, non-middle class people, institutionalised culture just does not seem relevant to their lives” @DrDaveOBrien; “the @UoWcommission will raise a similar concern….” @elebelfiore.

Institutionalised culture has never seemed very relevant to my life either, so I wondered what we mean by the term? If it means culture that needs a major mechanism to deliver it then that applies to everything from cinema, to a music festival, to a museum.  If it means culture that needs longevity beyond the limits of an individual’s lifespan, then that applies to rock and roll, opera, sculpture, and fashion.  If it means institutions that promote exclusivity through habit, price or avarice then that can apply to any form of culture, from the private view, to the after-show.  What I think it actually refers to are the institutions that prepare us to engage with culture, and predominantly family and school.  In some ways a return to Raymond Williams and his influential view of culture as a whole way of life.  The question becomes what is the cultural composition of that way of life. We need to understand this to be able to make sure the loop of audience, people and place works.  If art is a transformative encounter then people only become audiences at that moment, and most audience experiences need both artist and person to bring something to the experience.

For someone like me an equality of access to the arts is a fundamental concept. One that is akin to the philosopher John Rawls’s idea of a range property [3].  Rawls rooted his work in two principles of which the first ‘guarantees the right of each person to have the most extensive basic liberty compatible with the liberty of others’, and he attempts to deal with an understanding of equality where clear differences can apply.  For example one theatre goer may be attending a mid scale performance of Othello in a local arts centre while another may be seeing the same play performed by the RSC on the main stage in Stratford. Both audience members share a range value of a live performance of Othello and are therefore equal in those terms.  We know that not everyone can see a RSC performance at Stratford.  However, we could have an expectation that everyone could have the option of attending a live theatre performance.  The question is what are the ‘property ranges’ that we should be working to achieve.  For example, for some, an event cinema or online streaming of Othello should be in the same property range as the live performance.  Whereas others, including myself, would argue that the power of the live encounter with theatre disqualifies it.

We have worked so hard to engage people with the performing arts.  Chris Bryant used the example of the London’s National Theatre opening on to the river, and not to the population of South London that sits behind it.  I was reminded of one of Jude Kelly’s first steps when appointed to the adjacent South Bank Centre.  She simply reorientated the centre so a public face was presented to local residents.  The centre remains an oasis where free local culture rubs shoulders with the stars of the classical arts.

However, the current situation of the cultural sector is not just ripe for reflection, it is also a cause of real anger and hurt as people see their work denied to increasing numbers of people, and a kind of cultural poverty take hold.  Can we understand how this is happening with the help of a sociologist like Saskia Sassen.  Sassen explores how soaring income inequality has led to the expelling of increasing numbers of “people, enterprises and places from the core social and economic orders of our time” [4].  She talks of ‘predatory formations’  a mix of elites and systemic capacities that produce acute concentrations of wealth.  So on the one hand we have a 60% growth in wealth of the most wealthy 1% over the last 20 years, but on the other, what makes this possible is a complex system of actors and government enablement.  The result is an ‘impenetrable haze’ where it is difficult to see what is happening.  If we make the assumption that we are also witnessing some expelling from our core cultural order, then are we able to see through the haze to what is happening?  Sassen thinks that you can’t see the robber barons any more, and this might be the case in the global creative industries but we have more transparency in our more intimate arts and culture economy.  After all Ambassadors Group or Bozars are not a major hedge fund. However, we have to be attentive as the tools of expulsion still apply.  A theatre ticket becomes a hopelessly unaffordable luxury.  A performance is something that ‘isn’t for the likes of me’.  The subject and treatment of material is not applicable to my income or ethnic group.  I recently evaluated a major research project, the AHRC funded ‘The Staging of the Scottish Renaissance Court’ [5], that involved staging a famous 16th Century play, Sir David Lyndsay’s ‘Satire of the Three Estates’.  So many of the participants and audience were struck by the simple fact that a central character, the pauper or poor man, was the wise and ethical heart of the piece.  The actors made the obvious comparison with Shakespeare where wisdom and resolution usually comes with a crown.  The re-staging of the play was considered to be dramatic time travel by actors who witnessed how the performative process brought the Scots language and the politics of the piece to life for a diverse audience.

So not only do we have to identify the ‘range properties’ we want to people to have, but we need to actively fight against the socio-economic forces that work against these basic cultural equalities.  It may be that Sassen’s ‘expulsions’ applies more to the arts case for investment – the form, content, and distribution of work – than expelling people from arts and culture. Most of the cultural sector is populated with professionals that want to maximise access and are genuinely concerned about the thinning of the audience profile. The fact is, however, that we have consistently failed to embed audience engagement and arts development in arts practice.  It remains a luxury and something that can be dispensed with when times are hard.  I recently attended a Scottish Parliament Working Group on Culture [6] where the Chair asked the assembled arts and culture professionals whether supporting culture should be a mandatory Governmental obligation.  This was met with confused silence only a decade or so after sustained campaigns to do just that.  There must be an argument for access to cultural infrastructure wherever you live.

There are examples of work that sustains.  The Cultural Affairs Committee of the Council of Europe is currently examining ‘cultural and creative crossovers’ as it grapples with culture’s contribution to the economy and social inclusion. This prompted me to re-appraise two projects that I worked with over a decade ago.  Both survive, and both require major cultural organisations to behave in different ways to their traditional core purpose.   Arts and culture infrastructure and capacity tends to be concentrated in city centres, as evidenced by the influential ‘Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital’ report in 2013 [7]. There is a place for schemes that connect up the cultural organisations of city centres with the localities where most people live.   The following examples demonstrate two sides of the same approach.  The Arts Champions Scheme connects each of the 12 major arts organisations in Birmingham with one of the 10 Districts that comprise the city.  Gallery 37 connects talented but marginalised people, and particularly young people, from the wider city with the Birmingham’s cultural heart through a short term intensive apprenticeship programme situated and showcased in the city centre [8].

The Arts Champions Scheme was launched in 2004 to coincide with the ‘localisation’ of some of the Birmingham’s services into new districts, each with a population of around 100,000.   The city is home to 12 major arts organisations, ranging from Birmingham Royal Ballet, to the IKON Gallery, to The Rep theatre.  The Champions scheme simply obligated each organisation to partner with a new district to identify and deliver activity that would make a difference.  The Champions shortlisted districts they would like to work in, and were supported by the City Council in making initial contacts and relationships at local level.  There was no prescription and activity could range from establishing youth theatres or choirs, to a dance leadership scheme to engaging hard to reach groups, to the development of craft skills. The scheme helped form Birmingham’s ‘Culture on Your Doorstep’ strategy  and was formally adopted as a Local Arts Protocol in 2009 and now has a common evaluation framework.  There are  four guiding principles: (i) improve cultural infrastructure to ensure that residents have access to high quality cultural opportunities in their neighbourhoods; (ii) invent new ways of connecting city-centre based resources to local neighbourhoods, which make our cultural assets more accessible; (iii) develop ways to communicate the range of cultural opportunities in local neighbourhoods; (iv) increase participation by local residents in targeted neighbourhoods.

The Champions reside in their District for a period of three years before starting a relationship with another district.  The organisations are encouraged to both maintain contact with their previous district, and to facilitate the incoming Champion.   Their role has been formalised as: (i) advocate for the arts sector in neighbourhoods giving advice and support; (ii) provide a catalyst for locally developed arts programmes                               (iii) provide activities in local neighbourhoods and linking local communities to city centre provision.

Participation in the scheme is included within each Champions overall funding agreement with the City Council and a small additional sum of £4,000 per District is available to help lever funds from other places.  Local arts audiences and levels of arts participation have increased significantly during the life of the scheme (doubling between 2011 and 2013).  A case study of the scheme was take up by Eurocities and similar initiatives in Helsinki and Lyon have been informed and partly inspired by the Arts Champions scheme.

The Arts Champions scheme demonstrates an effective and simple model that connects audience, people and place.  The next scheme is more complex in that it sets out to transform the prospects of people who are currently marginalised from the cultural sector.  Nevertheless, the scheme depends on recruiting talented people, locating them in an intensively creative environment, and linking them with arts organisations and professionals.

Gallery 37 was initiated in Birmingham by the City Council’s Arts and Events team in 1998. It developed from a model of creative arts training, set in a “canvas village”, that was pioneered in Birmingham’s sister city Chicago. The Birmingham version, delivered in a purpose built pagoda tented structure in Birmingham city centre, quickly established an identity, style and reputation of its own, providing a format appropriate to the creative training and support for young people in a major culturally diverse city.  The aim was to provide a quality work experience for young people and to: raise aspirations of socially excluded people through the arts; actively promote arts and arts organisations in the city; be pro-active in partnership work and artistic collaborations; provide professional training for community artists.

Each year a team of artists, working in association with Birmingham’s arts organisations used a series of hands on projects as a vehicle for an intensive, high quality training experience. By 2002 nearly two hundred young people each year were passing through the Gallery 37 annual programme. Of these over 90% were achieving positive outcomes in terms of employment or further full-time training.

Applicants were actively recruited from hard to reach groups and submitted work or auditioned to secure entry to the scheme.  The initial focus was on marginalised young people, but subsequent years have also targeted elderly people and people with learning disabilities. The city centre base was a key aspect of the scheme, both introducing young people to the cultural heart of Birmingham, and their work to the wide range of people working and visiting the centre.  It also meant that young people were given ‘breathing space’ from pressures that they may be experiencing in their local situation. In addition to training for young people Gallery 37 also provided a fertile training ground for artists and practitioners wishing to develop workshop and training skills. Increasingly young participants/apprentices returned to Gallery 37 themselves, as trainee artists, completing a cycle of excellence which generated extraordinary opportunities for young people to embark on a practical career in the arts.

While the scheme was very successful and widely admired the ratio of expenditure in relation to numbers of participants was higher than the norm. The cost of a Gallery 37 “apprenticeship” was around €2,840 per person.  This meant that securing investment to operate the scheme has always been a challenge and the project is not taking place in 2015.   However, plans are being developed to run G37 in 2016 as a “foundation apprenticeship” linked to a wider skills agenda. Gallery 37 has collaborated with a range of organisations to develop the model elsewhere in the UK.  For example Impact Arts in Scotland is operating G37 projects in Ayrshire and in Edinburgh in 2015.  The critical success factor for this project was the quality of the apprenticeship experience, and the involvement of the city’s major arts organisations and practitioners was a key element to securing high standards.

There is, of course, a wide range of inspiring work going on to connect audience, people and place.  For example I am currently working as a critical friend for the Creative People and Places programme in Corby [9].  This is an ambitious initiative that where local communities in 21 locations across England least well served by arts provision are devising arts programmes that respond to their priorities.  The aggregated project aims to make a major contribution to how arts activity is planned, resourced and delivered.  The Scottish referendum experience was also inspiring as cultural organisations were in the heart of the campaigning and debate.  ‘The Great Yes, No, Don’t Know 5 minute theatre show’ curated by the National Theatre of Scotland was a great example of how digital tools can connect culture across a wide spectrum of interests, with contributions across a 24 hour period from the widest imaginable cohort of artists, schools and communities [10].

There is, however, a growing problem.  The ENO situation was described by the company’s director in residence, Peter Sellars, as a “Chernobly meltdown”, a cultural meltdown that is effecting the performing arts sector as a whole.  Chris Bryant talks of a “cultural drought” outside of London.  Perhaps we have just forgotten how to work our cultural assets?  The dominant creative narrative is currently one of entrepreneurship.  While this is a healthy drive to innovation, it foregrounds the monetising tip of the cultural iceberg.  We can lose focus on both the social and collaborative aspects of creative production and the social environment in which it operates.

The inescapable truth is that we need to keep supporting both the supply and demand sides of culture.  If we only invest in production then it will become more and more exclusive.  If we only focus on demand then we lose our creative capacity.  We need to reinvigorate our cultural organisation’s commitment to social inclusion.  There may be a need for new models, but there is also a need for a ‘whole organisational’ response from arts institutions, from Board member to technical staff.

There is an unshakeable founding notion for many of us.  We believe that art changes lives.  Much of that art comes to us from ‘institutions’ that constantly reinvent the traditions of classical culture, from the orchestral symphony to Kathak dance.  We need to keep faith with this belief in the transformative power of the artistic encounter.  We need to keep working to make sure everyone experiences it.

References and Further Reading

[1]    http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/feb/12/english-national-opera-told-to-put-its-house-in-order

[2]    http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/jan/16/arts-diversity-chris-bryant-eddie-redmayne

[3]    A Theory of Justice, by John Rawls, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971

[4]    Expulsions – Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy, by Saskia Sassen, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014

[5]    http://www.stagingthescottishcourt.org

[6]    http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/msps/68054.aspx

[7]    http://www.gpsculture.co.uk/rocc.php

[8]    Information provided by Birmingham City Council

[9]    http://creativepeopleplaces.org.uk

[10] http://www.nationaltheatrescotland.com/content/default.asp?page=home_TheGreatYesNoDontKnowFiveMinuteTheatreShow



Article published in: Culture.Shift: Creative Leadership for Audience-Centric Performing Arts Organisations

A Theatron Toolkit for Strategic Audience Development

ISBN: 978-0-9576843-9-3 First Edition: 1 July 2015