DEA BIRKETT Panel beating
Dea Birkett finds too little in common among those planning future arts funding
At last panels discussing the future of the arts are becoming more diverse. Increasingly, those who are sitting on them come from different backgrounds than before. This new diversity isn’t about ethnicity or gender – the recent seven- strong panel discussing “The State of the Arts” at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham was made up entirely of white men. (Imagine an arts panel of entirely black women – it wouldn’t be titled “The State of the Arts”, but “Black Women in the Arts”, and thought to be representing a sectional interest.) But on this White Men in the Arts panel, the commercial world was well represented.
This government, like the one before it, is trying to persuade the arts sector that commercial and publically-funded arts organisations have a great deal in common. They are all part of the “Creative Industries” – a newly-named sector I doubt really exists. For while they sit next to each other on panels, in private it’s rare to find anyone, from either side, who thinks that they face the same challenges or have the same mission. In public, it’s all nods and agreements; in private, it’s shaking heads and rolling eyes. Each mutters about the other, “They just don’t understand ...”
I am creative director of two organisations – one a publically-funded arts organisation, the other a commercial film production company. While both have to balance the books, the pressures one faces bear little resemblance to the other. The common thread is a desire to produce excellent work. But the commercial company has to make a profit; the charity doesn’t. The commercial company can choose to take risks, as it’s our money; the charity can’t, as it’s public money with proper controls and checks. I could lose my home if the film company went bottom up; my personal fortune is not tied to the charity. The funded sector may take more artistic risks, but that’s because it’s not their money. They can afford to fail. I have sat through many a perfectly dreadful publically-funded performance with only a handful in the audience,
which then goes on to tour because the commitment to do so has already been made. A commercial company would pull the show; that would be the brave and sensible thing to do. Funded shows should be bold enough to do so too, but that is extremely rare. Such failures are usually blamed on the audience,
not the production, on the grounds that audience just aren’t artistically educated enough to understand. But the commercial sector needs to understand
that those who get funding aren’t immune to financial pressures and that they are, essentially, working to a different mission. Publically-funded organisations must surely be essentially tasked to drive change. They must be about making things different to how they are – for the arts and for audiences. They must produce new art, they must develop new audiences. They must benefit people in broad ways – education, health, enjoyment – making all of them better than before. A commercial company can satisfy existing artistic appetites; a funded company should create new ones. And a funded company cannot, as all too many are, be for the benefit of a small minority. A commercial company has every right to be so.
As for the other diversities on The State of the Arts panel, those from the publically funded sector can change this. It’s such a simple solution, and it’s baffling why Arts Council England and the BBC – both on this panel – don’t do it. When they agree to appear, they should state it’s on the condition that it’s a diverse panel, otherwise sadly they can’t be on it. That puts the responsibility entirely on the organisers. And it’s that kind of pressure that the publically- funded organisations ought to be exercising, as part of their unique mission. That’s what makes them different. If they don’t do that, then they are just part of this thing called the “Creative Industries”, whatever that might be.
Dea Birkett is Creative Director of Kids in Museums www.kidsinmuseums.org.uk and ManyRiversFilms www.manyriversfilms.co.uk