How should the Arts Council support national touring?

Convener(s): Emma Stenning 

Participants: Jon Spooner, Stephen Hogget, Neil Darlison, Kirsty McKenzie, Nick Sweeting, Kate McGrath, Lyn Gardener, Claire Soper, Cheryl Pierce, Simon from Hoi Poloi, Eleanor, Judith Knight, Ric Watts……please add your name if you were there, I forgot to take a list.

 Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

This was a wide ranging conversation about the general state of national touring, which tried to identify issues and think through how ACE can best support brilliant work to tour.

Some thoughts:

  • Companies making their first applications to ACE to tour often suffered since their application is passed regionally for assessment and their work is not known by regional officers.
  • ACE needs to expand it understanding of what a venue is, since it’s often felt that work which tours to “irregular” spaces is de prioritised or not understood as a valid tour.
  • Funding can be too prescriptive in terms of what a tour is.
  • There was a strong sense from some of the group that with high profile producing theatres (like the National) touring, offering work of such quality and security to venues, they were pushing younger companies with more risk taking work out of the sector.
  • We discussed the pros and cons of touring full weeks vs. touring split weeks: split weeks enabled a venue to take more of a risk on a show and could be seen as a positive in terms of audience development – ACE might better support companies in touring split weeks to enable this to happen. On the other hand, ACE could support venues in taking the risk of full weeks which equally might fuel better audience development.
  • We looked at how we might best evaluate work in making judgements about what should and should not be funded to tour. Subsidy per ticket was generally not thought to be a valuable statistic since work can be of extremely high creative value, but economically extremely unviable.
  • ACE, companies and venues need to vastly improve the frequency and quality of evaluative conversation, allowing full time and space for the complexities of a company’s development to be explored, and full understanding of audience development initiatives which may change venue to venue within a single tour. “Singing Our Praises” a book by Susan Callaghan was given as an example of brilliant evaluation – featuring a project from Improbable.
  • Arts Council needs to improve the quality of its creative conversation. To quote one group member: “when I come to Arts Council I feel like my ideas are drowned out within moments”.
  • Arts Council needs to develop a clear strategy for touring, and needs to promote it widely.
  • Arts Council needs to be very clear where it holds an overview of national touring, and how this is relevant to both RFO decisions and project funding.
  • There was discussion about whether Arts Council should support touring companies, or venues to produce and tour work, or a combination of the two. Ultimately, in the creative relationship the power is where the money is, and ACE needs to better understand this. At the moment, the spread of funding is forcing collaboration – no one is funded well enough to produce their work without partnership – is this a good or bad thing?
  • There was a sense from some that touring was not valued by ACE.
  • Consortia can be productive in enabling venues to take risk, and in supporting companies to make initial or especially adventurous steps onto a touring circuit. This Way Up and Music Beyond Mainstream were good examples, and ACE should think about supporting a similar scheme on the mid scale.
  • ACE can be too prescriptive about whether a company is small or mid scale, often a company’s work will fluctuate in scale.
  • The finances of a tour can be very complex, with companies able to make a decent income from some venues, be it a home base with a highly developed audience or an established venue with good guarantees. At the same time some venues can be loss leaders but good development opportunities for the company. ACE needs to better its understanding of this picture, and become more sophisticated in how its subsidy is given.
  • There is a developing problem that high profile venues are able to make deals that are bad for the company but that the company is forced to accept the booking since the profile of the venue will benefit the course of tour booking, or the achievement of funding. ACE might be able to intervene in this situation and give direction to the venues not to do this.
  • At the same time, higher profile companies are beginning to charge extremely high fees for their work, far outstripping the venue’s financial ability at the box office, but the venue is forced into a loss leader in order to bring the work to the region.
  • The schedule of project funding is not supportive of good tour booking, and often companies are forced into commitments before they are funded, or venues are asked to commit to dates which may or may not come through. The system therefore puts real strain on this relationship, and is actively de-stabilising of the touring circuit.
  • The current ACE system of having to pay back portions of grants if the number of touring weeks are not met is damaging to most tours since they usually become more financially vulnerable in this situation, not less, and it is never the case that a week’s worth of subsidy is freed up by a cancelled touring week.
  • ACE could usefully hold a contingency to support tours that get into financial trouble.
  • Touring NEW work is a very different situation to touring classics, and different again to making a show in a producing theatre, running it, and then applying for touring funding to take a proven piece out on the road. ACE needs to develop strategy in each of these areas, and understand the variance in risk with each.
  • Some felt that ACE’s understanding of their organisation always felt short term and project by project, even though they were required to submit long term plans for review. Much depended on the quality of relationship with the officer, and this varied widely from one experience to another.
  • ACE officers must see the work of the companies within their portfolio.
  • It was suggested that an ideal funding structure would be for ACE to offer core funding to support the overhead of a company, and then welcome applications on a project by project basis for the work that the company wants to make, allowing the company to be stable and sustainable, and for each project to find its own creative shape.