Why arts companies need to be better at making money…

… to stop thinking about money.

I remember watching The Aviator years ago and there are two lines from the film that have stuck with me:

Mrs Hepburn (Frances Conroy) “We don’t care about money here.”

Howard Hughes  (Leonardo DiCaprio) “You don’t care about money because you’ve always had it”.

Ages ago, I went to an open forum/place of discussion for people working in and around theatre. There were a lot of interesting conversations happening and the nature of the event is that you can never go to every discussion. So perhaps I missed that key discussion which tackles what I’m talking about here… Either way, what I found from the ones I did attend was that it felt like everyone was skirting around the main issue: the fact that there isn’t any money.

The closest discussion came from one focused on the #IllShowYouMine feed and the articles surrounding it. It all sparked from a blog by artist Bryony Kimmings that involved her laying her finances bare for everyone to see. The crux of it all is that Kimmings is an award winning artist, she is one of the few that has ‘made it’ and yet, she doesn’t make much money and is poorly paid – particularly by some of the venues she tours to. The discussion I was involved in did make some very good points, such as:

  • We need a better dialogue between theatre makers and venues.
  • We need more transparency in finances and budgets.
  • Artists should get paid more.
  • Plus many more.

I generally agree with all of the points raised but the problem is that there isn’t enough money to do this. Many productions I’ve worked on have had very small budgets and were run by volunteers meaning there were no fees. If those productions had decided to pay everyone working on the show we’d have added at least £20,000 onto the budget. Where on earth were we going to find £20K? Ok, so there are funding bodies that do give this sort of money to companies but there aren’t enough – look at the Arts Council budget being slashed over recent years.

So. We need to think about making money.

There are many artists who fall into the Mrs Hepburn group claiming not to care at all about money. To these people, I ask how they pay their rent, gas, electricity, water bills, food, transport etc. let alone any money to do anything fun. In short, if they don’t care about money, how do they survive? Perhaps some have rich parents, some may have income generated elsewhere, whatever the source the “You don’t care about money because you’ve always had it” feels like it applies. If money isn’t an issue, it’s because it must be coming from elsewhere. This is certainly a way to break into the theatre industry, work a full time job and on the weekends and evenings, make theatre. The issue with this is it’s not a sustainable way of living. You end up working 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. It also means that when you do get a job in theatre you might end up taking a hefty pay cut because you’re bottom of the ladder (not always true but can be).

What we need to do is be better at making money. That way we can pay more people, we can pay them fairly and start to think less about money (and more about art).

Unfortunately, theatre itself is not a very good way at doing this. It doesn’t follow the same rules as other industries. We can’t mass-produce it (NT Live has tried to do this but that’s essentially cinema in my opinion) in the same way you can with other goods and this makes the economics of it quite tight. Typically you might put up the prices and respond ‘that’s just how much it costs to make’ like you do with other goods. But to add another spanner in the works, a lot of theatre makers are quite socially conscious and don’t want to make their work inaccessible or exclusive. So we need cheap theatre that makes money. This is possible, it does happen but you often end up with populist theatre that can draw the largest audiences. There’s no room to experiment, no room for controversial stuff and no room to try out your ‘weird but possibly genius’ ideas. This is where public subsidy comes in. Although I think this is a very good idea and I think it’s important to ensure a healthy budget does go to the arts – it ain’t happening. We need to make our own money.

So back to the drawing board: we need cheap theatre that makes money but still has room to experiment… How do we do it?

Honestly, I don’t think it’s possible with absolutely 0 subsidy but I do think it’s possible with not much subsidy. We just need good business savvy. The venues and companies that are doing well financially are the ones who are using alternative sources of revenue. For example they do workshops, educational work, corporate gigs or commissions, this brings in money so that theatre makers have a certain amount to work with. Other good examples are venues that hybrid themselves so they’re half bar/club and half theatre. I like the idea of hybrid companies that have a profit-making side that fuels the art-making side; assuming it’s done well it’s hopefully a relatively sustainable idea.

Now I realise a lot of these issues do stem from how much society values art and perhaps it is a failing of me to not approach this issue. For example to have corporate gigs, workshops and educational ventures you need people in other industries to value creative, artistic work. This is a key part of this conversation and one that I aim to tackle in a different blog.

Ultimately, I feel like companies who are truly committed to making regular art need to be commercially minded. They need to find sources of income beyond the regular funding bodies. They need to work out what services they can provide which would be valuable to others. Essentially we need to think about what we’re good at that has a commercial value and then we need to work at that alongside the art-making process. This way we don’t have to worry so much about how much commercial value the art has. If we want to make a one-audience show we can; if we want to make an experimental durational performance piece we can; if we want to make productions with free entry we can. By being clever on the profit-making side of the company we could provide ourselves the freedom to make the work exactly as the way we want it.

Post by Oli Back

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