Does central funding create conservative theatre?

Matthew Midgley, 4 October 2012

In order to answer our question, we began with a question. While there may be an increased conservatism in contemporary British theatre, is central funding in fact the problem?

One response suggested yes. Small organisations are finding it harder to gain access to Arts Council funding at a time when the Arts Council themselves are having to make even harsher judgements to decide who gets what. Risk was a key word throughout the session – in the case of small organisations, the experience of several of our participants was that without the right links to large institutions, without the right partnerships in place, they were perceived as too risky to fund.

One of the chief counter-arguments was that central funding provides stability, the soft platform on which it is possible to take risks without getting seriously hurt. Several good examples were given of large funded institutions dedicating some of their budget to facilitating new work, such as the Edinburgh Fringe schemes helping artists to attend the festival run by the Old Vic and Northern Stage. If such activities were stipulated as a condition of funding, then surely central funding can help stimulate and diversify the theatrical landscape?

There was a general consensus that theatre should enrich peoples’ lives, challenge them and inspire them. But in order to do this, artists should be involved at the beginning of the funding process and not at the end. There were areas of agreement

on both ‘sides’ of the argument – chiefly that more money in artists’ hands was desirable and achievable. The relationship between artists and their audience is key and sometimes central funding engenders carelessness in this regard, it was argued. Peripheral questions of whether artists are owed a living and whether we had become too reliant on central funding came up and were vigorously debated.

The idea was floated that institutions have become too heavy administratively, that money that could be spent on making theatre is being spent on other things. An alternative suggestion was that conservative theatre is a product of conservatism in theatre leaderships and the complex processes of large institutions. Again, the idea that once something becomes a job, a career, you're naturally disinclined to endanger your career by commissioning new work that probably won't sell.

Overall there seemed to be encouraging agreement in the key area of artist-led theatre – but like a large vessel that has been sailing in the wrong direction, it will take some time to turn things around.


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