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Another Conversation about Access to the Arts? Part Two: Resources, Funding, Sustainability

This is part two in a series on access and participation in the arts so, as they say on your favourite podcast*, if you haven’t already heard part one, please potter off over there for the background to this post.

It’s important to acknowledge that this event was run in partnership with Culture Republic, who announced their closure in mid June of this year. While we were saddened to hear of this news, we are confident we’ll cross paths with these excellent arts professionals, such as co-chair of this event Ashley Smith Hammond, in the future.

Access and Participa… zzzzz...

Access and Participation are overused terms. We see them again and again in cultural strategies and funding documents and we start to become numb to them. But, as the Scottish government puts it “the fundamental value of culture and its empowering and transformative potential” is something nobody should feel excluded from. At Spektrix, we believe that everyone should have access to a cultural and creative education and that everyone has the right to experience amazing arts. That’s a key reason we put this event together.

Themes that emerged through the roundtable discussion we hosted included prescription thwarting innovation, short-term targets versus long-term impact, a fear of failure and a lack of trust. The need for more open lines of communication between funders and applicants was the loudest klaxon of all. Here are some of the thoughts and responses shared on the day, though the conversation is by no means over, so please add your ideas at the bottom.

From Monologue to Dialogue

There was recognition in the room that as arts organisations, we are not invisible; we are powerful and we need to make our voices heard. Collective powers and resources could turn this one-way system (in which the funder hands money to those organisations who promise to tick their boxes) into a more open dialogue. We could start to inform the funding infrastructure and initiate a two-way street where we demonstrate what boxes we already tick and offer new and interesting experiments for engagement as a collective. Regularly putting complicated funding applications together takes time and can be a huge resource drain on already lean teams. By highlighting the real world costs and offering ways to streamline inefficiencies of the funding application process to the funders, we could make the limited resources available through these funders go further.

Please sir, can we have some innovation?

The feeling in the room was that the current approach to funding access and participation initiatives is too prescriptive. How is innovation being championed if each organisation has to tick the same boxes, rather than being supported to develop diverse approaches that reflect the needs of the communities they serve? How can creative solutions be found if the framework for support is a one size fits all? These key questions arose again and again throughout the afternoon.

The sense of competition for funding was something else that was lamented. On one hand, competition can be a good thing that drives up quality and accountability; the introduction of minimum requirements for funded organisations to deliver specified levels and types of participation activity has definitely supported growth in this area across the sector. However there is a sense that we are beyond this now. At this stage, transparency around the types of challenges individual organisations are best placed to overcome could better serve the sector, and the audiences it is trying to engage. Could that mean that we have expert organisations in specific fields, rather than a jack of all trades approach across the subsidised sector?

One of our participants suggested that a collectivist approach to applying for participation funding might be the way forward. What would it look like if the organisations around the table got together and presented their own funding plan to Creative Scotland? Might they be better equipped to negotiate among themselves as to which unique issues they are in a solid position to tackle? Sounds pretty revolutionary but we’ve had the current system in place for such a long time, maybe it’s time for a shake up...

Wider Participation? Offer them free tickets.

Funding cycles are relatively short and the process can be fairly onerous. And then what happens after your temporarily funded projects end? Instilling lasting change takes time and a real understanding of people’s motivations and preconceptions. How can we embed long-term approaches to inclusivity and engagement when our funding model doesn’t reflect the time it takes to really affect change? Identifying a group of disengaged people and throwing free tickets at them is not a long term solution to increasing and diversifying engagement in the arts. One of the organisations at our event had experimented with free tickets versus low cost tickets and the ones with a price attached (as little as 50p)  were more likely to get bums on seats. Trying to diversify and develop the people in your audience doesn’t have to mean a reduction in overall revenue. It does mean identifying the costs and prejudices that are barriers for people and responding with creative inventory management and communication of your offering.

There was also some discussion around the way we work with our younger audiences. We assume that providing them with cheap or free tickets will create lifelong theatregoers but we also need to help them feel connected to and comfortable at a venue. This includes enabling direct interaction with your website and building; even something as simple as having them pay for and collect their own tickets. This includes recognising that someone under 26 is not only a young person but also has their own preferences and tastes. While ambassadors (whether “youth” or “community”) can be incredibly powerful advocates and greatly assist in facilitating connections, for true engagement we need to empower visitors as individuals.

One example of an organisation taking a thoughtful and creative approach to audience development is Hull Truck, who were featured in the news recently for running pop up box offices at shopping centres in deprived areas of Hull. They piloted the scheme last year and used the findings to roll the programme out and guide their inventory management strategy. They are gathering evidence as to why theatre doesn’t feel relevant to people and what preconceptions exist; we can only start to break down those barriers once we truly understand this.

Spinning around

Identifying funders who support longer-term plans for diversifying your audience is an additional challenge. You’re unlikely to find funders in arts and culture who don’t expect to see concrete results in under three years hiding between the cushions on the sofa. Some of our participants had found trusts such as the Paul Hamlyn Fund (PHF) to be more flexible and longer term in their approach. Flexible does not mean free from oversight. Recipients are required to report on outcomes and PHF has been remarkably transparent and published reports about failed projects. The inclusion of “explore and test” in the names of some of their funds speaks volumes. Convincing funders and philanthropists of the importance of longer term support to really experiment with what works with different audiences is vital. To truly experiment means to allow ourselves to fail but it is difficult to be ambitious and take risks when you don’t know whether your project will survive past its first round of funding.

Must.Not.Fail.

Something we are fairly terrible at in the arts is permitting ourselves to fail. We don’t have time, money or resources to spend our time failing and most funders appear to be in agreement with that thinking. (Though, as previously mentioned, there were some bodies name checked at our roundtable who seemed more amenable to the concept of failure). Nobody is saying we should be irresponsible when it comes to public money but the current system is so tied up in prescriptive application and reporting processes that the effect can be a dilution of potentially innovative ideas.

It would be unfair to say that funders like Creative Scotland have been ignoring these challenges - the intentions outlined in the recently published cultural strategy demonstrate precisely the opposite. Nowhere in the publication is the word “fail” used however it does talk about the cultural sector being in a position to “test and suggest new approaches” to business. The concept of testing must take into account the concept of failing. If you don’t have time to read the whole publication, jump to page 15, where not only have they recognised the need for “long term change through greater collaboration and integration across culture” but one of the three pillars underpinning their vision is “sustaining culture”.

Let’s hope the sexy headline quotes (“Culture must be free to be inspiring, disruptive and plural”) are more than simply inspiring words that give us hope for a more sustainable, thoughtfully funded future for the arts both in Scotland and beyond.

A Matter of Trust

In the arts world, we love words like collaboration and consultation however many of our arts organisations told us they don’t feel trusted by funding bodies to “do the right thing” with the money that they are awarded. How can this be when trust is such a fundamental building block of collaboration, and therefore our industry? Whether it is our audiences trusting us to provide them with an experience that is valuable, trusting our fellow cast members that they will play their part on stage night after night or trusting that all those loooong days we pulled as a marketing assistant would eventually pay off, trust is a core tenet of our business. Interestingly, the British Council has also published two reports in the past five years highlighting how important the relationship between trust and economic prosperity is - a very interesting read and a topic for a future roundtable discussion perhaps...

*Mine is probably S-Town. Slow burner but worth it. Sort of like season four of Arrested Development. I highly recommend you listen to it while waiting for part three of this blogpost series to arrive.