Theatre in Wales

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Let's Have More Evidence-based Arts Policy

Arts Policy Report

More Toughness Required , Public Financing of the Arts , June 3, 2019
Arts Policy Report by More Toughness Required William Goldman (1931-2018) left his best words on screen. His screenplays for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “the Princess Bride” are a testament of work done and pleasure given. Off-screen his most famous sentence is made of just three words. It is the theme that runs through his great memoir from 1983 “Adventures in the Screen Trade.” “Nobody knows anything” was his epitaph on the Hollywood colossus.

It was not entirely true since a lot of people know a lot of things. But knowing what you do not know, lauded in the previous article 25th May, is the best start there is. Goldman was writing about Hollywood but it could be any field of endeavour. The random is on a vastly greater scale than we like to consider. Read Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He did not write about the arts but theatre is an uninterrupted chronicle of black swans. Nicholas Hytner has described actors walking on an empty stage with cardboard boxes on their heads. Nothing is pre-determined but so did “War Horse” begin.

The common relationship between arts policy-makers and the theatre artists who get the cash has taken a curious turn. The men on much better pay are dissatisfied with the women and men who have opted for a life on average of lower reward. One cause is the nature of the beneficiaries of the cash disbursed. Evidence-based medicine has been growing in strength since the 1960s. Arts Councils could do with more evidence-based input. They have lots of data but lots of data are not full data.

Take the next generation. Exhortations are made that not enough young are aspiring towards the arts. They tend to be issued by plumply salaried, successful people. But to spend your twenties trying to make a living from the arts means being in the lowest quartile by assets in your sixties. It is lesson one statistics. Most skills and attributes bunch around the mean. In most walks of life the mean is good enough and benefits the many. But it is not the case for writers, actors, visual artists. In labour economics parlance they are winner-takes-all labour markets that favour the few. But this is not the media message. The let-down, the resigned and the doughtily disappointed are the rule but are not for reporting.

The evidence base: “Almost two thirds of actors, musicians and dancers in Britain earned less than £5,000 from their profession last year and had to take jobs outside the entertainment industry to make ends meet. About one in eight of the 3,000 respondents said that they earned more than £20,000 a year from performing. One in three, both male and female, admitted that they had experienced depression in the past year, reported the survey by the Mandy Network, an entertainment recruitment company.” Source: the Times 29th November 2018.

As for the relationship of young people, education and the arts Amanda Spielman, Ofsted's Chief Inspector, addressed the annual conference of Association of Colleges in November 2018.

“Arts and media”, she told the gathering, “ does stand out as the area where there is greatest mismatch between the numbers of students taking the courses and the employment prospects at the end. There is a point up to which courses that engage learners have value, but ultimately there have to be viable prospects at the end.”

“Course adverts”, she continued, “often listed potential jobs in the arts, which are, in reality, unlikely to be available to the vast majority of learners but underplay the value of other skills these courses develop. This suggests that there are far more students taking these subjects than there are career opportunities. And, these colleges risk giving false hope to students. It raises the question: are they putting the financial imperative of headcount in the classroom ahead of the best interests of the young people taking up their courses. If that’s the case, this isn’t acceptable.”

Tough talk. But it made by someone who knows. And it has had a consequence. Anglia Ruskin University has this month paid £61000 in an out-of-court settlement after being sued for false advertising. The University offered a higher sum if it came with no publicity and an non-disclosure agreement.

The next piece in this intended exit year of summing-up will look at the errors on participation that seem to have become the norm.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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