Don't get distracted with fruitless debates about Quality or Accessibility, Audiences or Product - they're all part of the same artistic equation. Speaking at the Norwegian Arts Council's Annual Conference in November 2010, Chief Exec, David Brownlee of Audiences UK, advised delegates that we all want the same thing - Great Art.
Here's David's speech in full...
Norway has rapidly developed a reputation in Europe as a nation that takes audiences seriously. You are embarking on a journey. The UK has been on this journey for a while longer, but we certainly haven’t reached our destination. Over the past few decades we have taken several some promising routes that have led us nowhere, and occasionally the odd dubious track that has led us to unexpected knowledge and enlightenment. Today I will share with you three suggestions that I think might speed your journey.
My personal journey over the last 20 years has taken me from publicising arts events in rural Wales to marketing at London’s Royal Court Theatre and the West End, international Festivals and major arts-led regeneration projects, before moving into senior cultural policy roles in local government in London and regionally and nationally for Arts Council England. I am now Chief Executive of Audiences UK, a network of 12 regional and national organisations who work to
encourage more people to engage with the arts and culture.
Across the last two decades, I have been involved in countless arguments about the relative importance of ‘supply’ and ‘demand’. Please don’t think that anywhere in the UK national arts policy and public funding is driven principally by public need. It isn’t. The huge growth in funding and infrastructure over the last decade and a half has been welcomed by the sector as it has allowed it to produce more art to higher standards, not because it has allowed it to reach more people.
In the UK, I could never imagine the quality of our education sector being based on how satisfied teachers are in their day-to-day work or a health service that’s impact is measured on how much is spent on new hospitals, not on how many people are being successfully treated within them. This is how it has often felt in the arts. As long as the loud lobby of prominent artists and arts organisations have the facilities and funding they want, cultural policy is viewed as a success.
Until a couple of years ago, I would have argued that the entire national arts funding system needed to be turned on its head. Public funding should be focused on the public. Provision needs to be balanced throughout the country and responsive to what the public want, not what arts organisations and artists want to provide.
But then three things tempered my view.
The first was a trip to China. I was invited to visit Chongqin
g and Chengdu and meet various arts organisations. Until recent years, venues played to 100% capacity, night after night and everyone attended the opera and concerts. Surely this is the vision we are all trying to achieve?
But now many arts operations were in crisis. Previously tickets were free and there was an expectation that when you were offered a ticket you would use it. Now market reforms meant that you had to pay for tickets and the pressure to attend was removed. The public now had a choice, and it was staying away in droves.
This is the Angel of the North wearing a 30ft high replica of Newcastle FC’s Captain’s shirt.
Antony Gormley’s sculpture is rightly regarded as an example of iconic public art that is loved by its community and helps to define and celebrate a region. But it wasn’t always that way. 15 years ago when the idea was being developed, consultation with the local community made it clear that they didn’t like it, they didn’t want it and they thought it was a waste of money. You’d be pushed to find anyone who would question the value of it now, but it’s important to remember that left to ‘democracy’, the Angel would never even have celebrated its first birthday.
I wasn’t involved in creating the Angel, but I have a similar story to tell on a much smaller scale. A community in London called Downham had not received any attention in regard to cultural provision for generations. There was no infrastructure and no activity taking place. The Local Authority ran a consultation exercise to see what arts opportunities the residents of Downham wanted. The response was karaoke and face-fainting.
This shouldn’t have been a surprise. The Community in Downham simply didn’t know what they had been missing. It requires a skilled artist or community arts worker to truly understand the community and work with them to expand their horizons. This is what the Angel of the North project did. It was the right artist intervention for that community at that time, but the community itself would not have chosen it itself on their own.
In China, everyone had access to culture, but many people clearly didn’t value the experiences they were having. In Gateshead, many didn’t want the arts in their community, but now it is valued by almost everyone. The vision for cultural policy should not be making artistic opportunities open to everyone. It needs to be about making artistic opportunities available that people will value.
So why do people value the arts? This is a deceptively simple question. Arts Council England spent three years trying to answer it with one of the largest qualitative research studies ever undertaken into the arts. Over 1,500 individuals from all sections of society gave their views. There were three reasons:
But underpinning all of this is quality of experience. Only enriching, challenging arts were seen to create important benefits for both individuals and communities. As one respondent said: ‘If it does not offer quality of experience, why bother with it?’
So my first suggestion to help speed your journey is don’t get bogged down with debates about what is more important, quality or accessibility. The answer is they are both vitally important. Offering poor artistic experiences is worse than not offering experiences at all. And just because a community says it wants a certain kind of experience, it won’t necessarily be valued as much as an intervention led by a talented artist that listens to and understands the community she or he is working in.
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