Thursday, January 31, 2008

On UK Arts Funding, Toby Young Makes Me Sad

Toby Young's piece in the Guardian makes me mourn and wail and sigh. Headlined "Culture: Why Small Theatres Shouldn't Get Handouts," this is the kind of ignorant claptrap that gives arts-funding policy a bad name. Maybe Young thinks the world is flat, too.

I would ordinarily not quote so liberally -- pardon the pun -- quote from a story, but the first five of the seven-graph think piece stunned me:

Britain's luvvies are up in arms at the Arts Council's proposed funding cuts to various regional theatres. They are concerned that many of the venues that depend on Arts Council subsidies – such as the Bristol Old Vic, the Northcott Theatre in Exeter and the Bush — will be forced to close if their annual grants are cut.

I'm sceptical about this. Surely the theatres in question will only go out of business if they continue to put on plays that fail to capture the public's imagination. It is only because they don't sell enough tickets that they're forced to depend on hand-outs. If their artistic directors were a little more in touch with the taste of ordinary theatre-goers, their survival wouldn't be in jeopardy.

The standard reply to this argument is that adopting such a commercial approach would lead to the end of the risk-taking that is a necessary condition of creative vitality.

In this light, subsidised theatres are the laboratories in which young writers and innovative directors are free to experiment. The vast majority of these productions will fail to put bums on seats, but some will be such artistic successes that they will go on to play to packed houses in the West End. A case in point is Jerry Springer: The Opera (pictured), which opened at the heavily subsidised Battersea Arts Centre.

I'm not convinced by this. Take the Menier Chocolate Factory. This 200-seat venue, which opened in 2004, is among the most successful fringe theatres in the UK, yet it has never received a penny of public funding. The production of Dealer's Choice currently playing at Trafalgar Studios began life at the Menier, as did the production of Sunday in the Park With George set to open on Broadway. It's latest production – a revival of La Cage aux Folles – has received glowing reviews and will almost certainly transfer to the West End later this year.
My first problem is the idea that, on the priority list for the theatre's accomplishments, capturing the public's imagination must rank first, second, third and fourth, all the way down to last. I'm a capitalist, yes, but these are the rambling of capitalistic swine. In a more healthy artistic atmosphere, theatre captures the public's imagination, yes, but it also leads and teaches; it rankles and it challenges; it swaggers and it defies; it sets standards and bends them and destroys them; it makes demands and it makes compromises; it wrestles and pins you down or, alternatively, it yelps and screams "uncle." As Young sees it, the only theatre of artistic value is the theatre that has literal value. And yet, Young writes,

"The standard that adopting such a commercial approach would lead to the end of the risk-taking that is a necessary condition of creative vitality."
Well, that's rather black and white, don't you think? Young goes on to talk about how the Menier Chocolate Factory in London has gotten along quite well without public subsidy, thank you, from its revival of Sunday in the Park with George (now transferring to Broadway following a very successful West End run) to its revival of La Cage aux Folles (about to segue to a West End run as well). But for every Menier Chocolate Factory -- oh, by the way, I was unaware that reviving preexisting works counted as risk-taking -- that triumphs, how many fail? The parallels with the nonprofit institutional theatre situation in the US are quite obvious, at least to me.

What really hurt me is this statement:

"It is only because they don't sell enough tickets that they're forced to depend on hand-outs."
Do I detect a note of hostility? Obviously ticket-selling is important, but if that's the most important thing, are we not, indeed, talking about a strict, unyielding commercial producing model? Consider now the final two graphs of Young piece:

"While the Menier's success can partly be chalked up to the entrepreneurial zeal of its founders, David Babani and Danielle Tarento, it also finds space for new work. In 2005, a play by Ryan Craig called What We Did to Weinstein was shortlisted for the Evening Standard's "Most Promising Playwright" award. Would the Menier have been so artistically successful had its directors had the safety net of a grant?

The real dispute here isn't between commercially minded philistines and high-minded theatre-lovers. Rather, the issue turns on who you consider the best judges of artistic merit: the theatre-going public or a bunch of Government-appointed apparatchiks. The Menier's success suggests it should be the former."
Again, bravo for the Menier Chocolate Factory. But how many companies never, owing to the Ayn Rand-worshipping slavishness of the conservative ultra-right (even in the UK), have the opportunity to present such work?

I, for one, do happen to believe that the dispute is between those who favor commerical theatre versus those who favor subsidized work, although, if we all agree that we want the best possible theatre we can get, then we should want those two seemingly opposed philosophies to find ways to work together. (The trend toward enhancement money is a good example.) Personally, I fail to understand why the reigning philosophy must be all of one or all of the other.

Further, if the idea that we must reflexively let the market decided all matters of theatrical art, why stop there? Why not, for example, compel museums to submit ideas for curated exhibits to a public referendum? Or force symphonies to submit concert selections to the same? Why not have the general public indicate, by vote, what dance companies ought to dance?

In something that resembles an enlightened society, "government-appointed apparatchiks," in fact, would not be nameless, faceless, blameless, wan-colored ghosts, but experts in their field and representative of a vast range of disciplines, aesthetics and beliefs. Maybe, in the world of UK public arts subsidy, that's the problem. But let's not slam those companies that depend on arts subsidies, and let's not attempt to con free-thinking people with blather about the fortunes of one company symbolizing the paradigm by which all theatres must model themselves.

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1 comment:

John said...

We played the Menier Chocolate Factory back in 2004 with Americana Absurdum. Know those guys pretty well. What they did, is they had a very good business plan and an incredidbly wealthy backer. The backer, who owns the building, is what's called a "property man" over there. He's a real estate guy, essentially, owns a lot of buildings on the south bank and he's enlightened and far-sighted enough to know that if he helps to create an art scene, his residential properties will become attractive. Guy named Don Something, really tough, kick-ass Kiwi. 70 years old and could kick my ass without getting out of his chair.

The business plan was not unlike what Mannheimer's proposing out in Des Moines. They have an excellent restaurant attached to the theater. They hired a serious chef and Danielle Taranto used to run the restaurant. Danielle is a knock-down gorgeous actress with years of experience working in restaurants. So, if a show does reasonably well, say fifty people show up, they don't get the 500-700pounds from tickets, they get the 1000-1500 pounds from tickets and a meal and some drinks after the show. Smart.