“Too small to succeed” – the latest hare that runs…

Last week there was an article by The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner commenting on the No Boundaries conference. In particular, she discusses the proposition put forward by John Knell that many arts organisations are “too small to succeed”.  It’s a good article, as usual, but I had to take issue with the idea that, in this, theatre is exceptional.  To quote:

“But while the argument of being too small to succeed may well apply in other sectors, it certainly isn’t the case in theatre, where energy and artistic vibrancy often come from smaller independent companies who are nimble, flexible and creative, make a little go a very long way and who serve particular communities extremely well. It is they, and individual artists, who are the life-blood of theatre.”

In my experience of working across the sector, this is not just true of theatre but of many, many artists and arts organisations, irrespective of artform. I’ve just spent the last two days at the Wellcome Trust delivering for their Sustaining Excellence programme, working with nearly 30 artists from 11 different organisations . Some were theatre companies, in its broadest sense, but many weren’t. All were small – I think the biggest probably had about 8 full time employees. All were working at the leading edge of creativity, across arts and science.   Nimble, flexible and creative, certainly. But fiercely independent, innovative and inspiring also. Yes, life is tough for them now. Yes, things are challenging and forcing them to adapt and innovate. But that’s what they do. Their lives are driven by vision, ‘my’ vision, ‘our’ vision. Many artists don’t want to be part of a bigger organisation. They want their own individual voices heard.   That’s not going to change.  It’s no accident that there are 1.3million arts and creative businesses across Europe compared with a mere 16,000 automobile companies.  Industrial models are simply inappropriate.   We will never coalesce around a single purpose, and especially not that of making money – it is the individual vision, the work itself, that drives arts entrepreneurs.  Of course, especially in an age of ever-increasing cuts in public spending, that’s not rational – but human beings aren’t rational: ask any 21st century economist!  The arts are first and foremost about people, about society, about communities.  Artists and arts organisations influence the way we see the world, live our lives, understand our communities.  An essential part of the responsibility of the arts lies in its very diversity, reflecting the complexity of the world we live in.  We’re still not good enough at that – but it’s changing, albeit slowly: new audiences, new communities are insisting that their lives are illuminated too.   So we need that multiplicity of voices in our arts sector.  These independent companies are the lifeblood of the arts, to adapt Lyn Gardner’s phrase. And yes, it takes ingenuity, entrepreneurialism, and general ‘savviness’ alongside your artistry to sustain your practice but that’s just about discipline, and, despite rumours to the contrary, we in the arts are pretty good at that. If you’re not, you won’t survive, whatever the shape of the ecology – it’s a merciless sector to work in but maybe that’s the price of our freedom to stay small.

So perhaps it’s not the arts organisations that should be the focus of attention right now. Maybe it’s the funders. In particular, maybe it’s the Arts Council and their relationship with Government. Why should our sector be made to replicate industrial models?  Why can’t there be recognition that the arts play a different role in society from business? And why can’t we take the innovation we demand of arts organisations and apply it to the way we fund them? As Lyn Gardner points outs, “By no stretch of the imagination could you claim that those involved [in No Boundaries] represented a cross-section of the UK arts scene. As Unlimited’s Jo Verrent suggested so eloquently in her presentation, who gets to do the selecting really matters and affects what gets seen and heard.” – So come on then – let’s be brave – we need real systemic change: don’t let’s allow the imposition of behemoth-sized sticking plaster solutions – let’s have change that’s appropriate and relevant to the artists and the communities we serve, that recognises the centuries-old culture of independence integral to how artists work, and that finally, genuinely, redesigns the relationship between government and the arts.