Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Taken for Granted

Another announcement from the Scottish Arts Council on the divvying up of its limited resources, another round of celebrations and recriminations for

So, here we go again. Another announcement from the Scottish Arts Council on the divvying up of its limited resources, another round of celebrations and recriminations for the winners and losers in the great game we call arts funding. We are locked, it seems, into an ever-turning carousel of cheers and tears.

Much attention has been given this week to the SACís announcement of the termination, by March 2005, of "core funding" to the long-established touring theatre company 7:84. As such funding represents general financial support for a companyís work, rather than cash given for a single project, it becomes the economic backbone of the companies which receive it. In the case of 7:84 it has accounted for around half of their income.

Yet the focus on 7:84ís predicament should not distract us from the fact that we have been here many times before. Do a Google search on "Scottish Arts Council, funding, crisis", and you will get more than 3,500 results. Even if you were to sort out the electronic wheat from the chaff, you would still be left with hundreds of stories of arts companies teetering on the brink of extinction following SAC decisions.

Of course, some organisations - think of Scottish Opera or Theatre Babel - survive. Others, such as the fondly remembered Wildcat theatre company, do not.

This, some would say, is the unavoidable nature of things. The SAC has finite resources and it is inevitable that one companyís gain is anotherís loss. If 7:84 and others are devastated by the most recent announcement, there are also those, most notably childrenís theatre companies such as Catherine Wheels and Visible Fictions, who are cock-a-hoop.

Bashing the SAC is, of course, very easy to do. Giving money to the arts is what it is there for, so little praise attaches to its allocation of resources. However, when a well-known name in Scotlandís cultural pantheon suddenly finds itself on the harsh end of a decision, an outcry follows.

We can forget, unless we heed SAC director Graham Berryís regular reminders, that the councilís decisions are taken by professional people who are not paid for sitting on its various funding committees. There is no question as to the invidious nature of their task.

Yet, aside from the actual funding decisions themselves (and who would deny our neglected creators of childrenís drama their new money?), I think it is time to question the whole way in which arts funding is structured in this country. The annual round of funding announcements appears to breed short-termism on the part of the SAC (why destabilise 7:84 just as it appoints its new artistic director, for instance?) and chronic insecurity on the part of our arts organisations.

Berry points to the "competitive" nature of applying for arts funding but it is nowhere set in stone that the competition should be as remorseless as it is currently. Take, for example, the suggestion of Kenny Ireland, the former artistic director of Edinburghís Royal Lyceum Theatre (and a man who is not apt to seeking, or receiving, support from theatre critics), of "endowment funding" for selected theatre companies.

Funding by endowment - in other words, a large lump sum, the interest from which could fund a company over a considerable period of time - would require a sea change in political attitudes towards the arts, but it would make a huge amount of sense. Of course, it would not eliminate the competitive element; value judgments would still have to be made as to which companies got cash and which did not. However, what it would do is give companies a degree of financial security and, therefore, artistic freedom that they have not been accustomed to under the current funding system. Core funded organisations complain that they are placed in an artistic straightjacket by the SACís insistence that they programme work 18 months in advance. Endowment funding would allow companies to go off and do pretty much whatever they liked, whenever they liked.

Much of the resulting work would, no doubt, take risks, put noses out of joint and even outrage sizeable sections of the audience. That, to a considerable degree, is what the arts are for. The dangers for a grown-up culture are minimal but the potential artistic benefits are incalculable.

There are also clear advantages to be gained by the SAC itself. For a start, it would help to breakdown the paternalism that, almost inevitably, develops within an organisation that is poised agonisingly between national advocate for the arts and established custodian of the culture. Whilst much of the councilís money would continue to go to one-off projects and the like, the achievement of endowment funding would make the SAC a much less hands-on body where the year-to-year artistic decisions of many of our leading companies are concerned.

Anyone who is not inclined to welcome such an outcome should consider the SACís statement regarding the companies whose loss of funding it has just announced. A spokeswoman for the council told this newspaper that the SAC has "given these companies advance notice that their priorities and our priorities must match". That sounds, to me, dangerously similar to the old adage: "He who pays the piper calls the tune." Not only does it smack of arrogance but it is absolutely inimical to the freedom necessary to create great art.

That freedom, incidentally, must include the freedom to fail. There is something worryingly Thatcherite (and, dare I say, Blairite?) about simply rewarding success and punishing perceived failure. It is a somewhat perverse logic that tells a respected arts company that has had a fallow patch, its attempts at rejuvenation are to be stymied by the removal of its financial support.

To make the case for a more carefully structured funding system is, of course, to cut against the sink or swim social Darwinism that is currently being applied to the arts. Yet, take one look at Londonís West End, where supply and demand commercialism reigns supreme, and you are offered a future of vacuous, lowest common denominator musicals written by Ben Elton.

We can complain as much as we like about the way the Scottish Arts Council cuts the cake, but what is ultimately required is a bigger financial cake. That, needless to say, is down to the politicians. The question is, do they have the vision and the confidence to grant our artists the freedom and the resources they need?

ē Mark Brown is a freelance theatre critic. He contributes regular reviews to The Scotsman.

author:Mark Brown

original source: The Scotsman
28 November 2003


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