New concert hall for London?

The debate around the pros & cons of a new concert hall for London are complicated. On the one hand, it’s tempting to applaud any new investment in arts infrastructure. But spending almost £300m on what is essentially an extension to the Barbican seems like a very narrow option. How is this going to reach new audiences?

Is it really true that the Royal Festival Hall is not fit for purpose, and the Barbican Hall is merely serviceable (according to Simon Rattle)? Is this all about his ego, or that of the May or London? Or neither?

Another massive cultural investment in London of course opens up the whole ‘London v Regions’ debate yet again. Now, there are plans for another big venue in Manchester (again, I would suggest the need for this is debatable), but do these huge infrastructure projects actually increase audiences / engagement / participation? Or does it just provide a nice, shiny new building for already-connected people to show off to their friends?

Beyond the cost of the build, both venues will no doubt require heavy subsidy to keep them afloat. And at a time of extremely tight public finances, this surely means more money for buildings and less money for art and audiences.

Imagine what could be possible if £300m was found to invest in music education instead. Would that not have a more profound effect on the cultural wellbeing of the country?


Labouring the arts policies

So the Labour leadership election is in full swing, with a result in a couple of weeks. All four candidates have broadly outlined their views on the arts. Let’s take a look.

Andy Burnham (a previous Secretary of State for DCMS) has emphasised the need for ‘technical training for creative industries’ and to address the issue of low pay in the sector. So far, so uninspiring, especially from someone who at least has worked with DCMS. 4/10

Yvette Cooper, more encouragingly, has talked about the need to make the case for the intrinsic value of the arts, and the impact on people & communities as well as their economic impact. To paraphrase Stewart Lee, when your justification for the arts is because someone buys a packet of crisps on their way to a venue, you’ve already lost the argument. It would be nice to see someone at least attempt to make the ‘intrinsic’ case for a change. 7/10

Front-runner Jeremy Corbyn has also encouragingly talked about the value of the ‘creative arts’ to society, and the importance of arts education in schools (and how much this is under threat from the Tories). Absolutely. 7/10

Liz Kendall, unsurprisingly, seems to be making the economic impact argument, as well as the need for better pay. Economics all the way. ‘The price of everything and the value of nothing’ springs to mind. 2/10

At this stage, it’s highly probable that Corbyn will win, and he’ll have bigger fish to fry than sharpening his focus on the arts. But hopefully it’ll form part of a wider ‘non-philistine’ narrative around the need to focus on quality of life and investment in public services…

Opinion Pricing

Price perception, ticket prices & booking fees

Several articles in the media this month about ticket pricing, especially the escalation in prices in the West End. For example, this interesting article in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago. It’s such a complicated area. There are lots of extreme examples of very high and very low prices.

I think it’s fanciful that commercial producers are using airline pricing models to make lower price tickets more accessible – their only obligation is maximising income. But of course there is some marketing mileage in being seen to be accessible – it helps generate the kind of media coverage we’re seeing again now. Where there is an element of public subsidy, there is more likely to be a balance between financial & social objectives.

What seems to be missing from these discussions is a consideration of price perception. Everyone has a different ‘value for money’ threshold; a different frame of reference. Low prices can be off-putting and cheapen the experience. High prices can be justified by a rarity factor, but again this is in the eye of the beholder.

Meanwhile, the issue of booking fees (or whatever you call them) remains a lottery. The most interesting one I’ve seen in recent times is the decision by the New Theatre and St David’s Hall in Cardiff to charge a fee for all transactions – even those made by cash in person at the box office. So it’s now impossible to purchase tickets at face value. I had previously understood the rules to be that you had to offer a fee-free option somehow (usually cash in person), but now that’s been ignored. If it’s impossible to pay £20 for a £20 ticket, is that still a £20 ticket? Discuss…


Warwick Commission for England

So I read the Warwick Commission report with a growing sense of ire. And not just about the findings which were mostly familiarly depressing. But also about the astoundingly England-only reference. The report makes ONE passing reference to Scotland and Wales, and (apart from on consultee in New Zealand!) not a single consultee was from outside England.

How can this report be respected and embraced from those of us working in the UK but not in England? I think it’s an astonishing oversight or perhaps a deliberate decision. Either way, the report fails to represent large parts of the UK with arguably greater issues and barriers to engagement.

I’ve become used to the lazy use of ‘Arts Council’ in UK discussions (meaning ACE) but for such a major report as this to ignore anything happening beyond England is truly disappointing.

Articles Opinion

10 things that we should change in classical music concerts

I like this article on Baldur Brönnimann’s website on ’10 things that we should change in classical music concerts’. In summary…

1. The audience should feel free to applaud between movements

2. Orchestras should tune backstage

3. We should be able to use mobile phones (in silent mode)

4. Programs should be less predictable

5. You should be able to take your drinks inside the hall

6. The artists should engage with the audience

7. Orchestras shouldn’t play in tail suits

8. Concerts should be more family friendly

9. Concert halls should use more cutting-edge technology

10. Every program should contain a contemporary piece

Personally, the only one I have a problem with is (3) – I find mobile phones distracting at all times, and it can be incredibly irritating for other audience members and, potentially, the musicians. But sign me up for the other 9. I feel a manifesto coming on…

Read the full article here


Articles Opinion

Hard Facts to Swallow

The latest report by GPS Culture (Christopher Gordon, David Powell & Peter Stark) has been published, looking in detail at the Arts Council England investment plans for 2015-18. ‘Hard Facts to Swallow’ makes uncomfortable reading, with a widening of the gap in investment in London compared with the regions.

The report claims that the balance in London’s favour is more than 4:1, with £689m invested in the arts in London (a per-capita return of just under £82 per head of population) and £900m invested in the rest of England (a per-capita return of just under £20 per head of population).

In response, ACE’s Chief Executive Alan Davey said “we’ve been addressing the balance of funding between London and elsewhere since that strategy was launched in 2010 and we will build on that in our next funding period. Our national strategy considers the whole ecology of England’s arts and culture… the trend is in the right direction.”

Download ‘Hard Facts to Swallow’ from the GPS Culture website and draw your own conclusions…

Articles Opinion

Empires of Attention

One of the highlights of AMA Conference 2014 in Bristol this week was Matt Locke talking about the challenge of needing to develop to respond to new attention patterns, and how this might affect arts programming, content and marketing. Apart from anything else, it explodes the myth that young people have short attention spans, with the rise in popularity of longer form films, ‘binging’ on TV series/box sets etc. In fact, it’s the traditional 60 minute format that’s disappearing with greater engagement in both shorter and longer formats of cultural experiences.

It’s prompted me to catch up with his excellent ‘ Empires of Attention’ talk from October 2013 which is available as a BBC Radio 4 ‘Four Thought’ podcast and as a text version here. Highly recommended reading…


‘Culture for All’?

Well, there’s no doubt that Sajid Javid has made an enthusiastic start as Culture Secretary. It’s so refreshing to have a Culture Secretary who is actually enthusiastic about it, and is engaging with the sector both through visibly supporting events and now delivering an eye- catching keynote speech ‘Culture For All’ last week in Bristol.

Here’s the Bristol speech in full

Mr Javid made some good, well-informed points. I’m sure the location (outside London) was a deliberate choice but was well-planned due to his Bristol experience growing up, and being able to genuinely talk with some local knowledge.

To pick up a couple of points. “In 2014, too many Britons are culturally disenfranchised. This isn’t a problem that will be solved simply by throwing money at it. You need to use your imaginations, explore fresh ways of looking at old issues. You already do this every day to create new works, so why not apply the same thinking to capturing new audiences and nurturing new talents?” – my experience is that most arts organisations are already doing this. And the suggestion that at the moment ‘money is being thrown’ at arts organisations seems way off the mark. Most I know have been cut so far they are unable to properly meet their potential and therefore cannot reach more ‘disenfranchised Britons’.

Also “Attract enough small donors and it all adds up over time. The National Trust has been doing so for years. Each of its members contributes a relatively small amount to supporting our heritage, but together they generate tens of millions of pounds.” Yes, but this is a vast organisation with a large staff, huge resources and a considerable marketing budget. This model is simply not replicable with small organisations, especially those community-based organisations who don’t work on high-profile ‘sexy’ projects/activities but do reach out to those ‘disenfranchised Britons’.

Let’s see what happens on 1 July when the ACE funding decisions for 2015-18 are announced. How many organisations will themselves become ‘disenfranchised’?…


Protect Music Education

Music education is under serious threat. The Department for Education has recommended that Local Authorities cut their music service funding to save money.

The ISM is running a ‘Protect Music Education’ campaign that makes clear that music is central is society, education and economy and that the Government must continue to support music education. This is not a niche view – 85% of British adults agree that ‘music education must not become the preserve of those children whose families can afford to pay for music tuition’.

There is now a consultation, open until 19 June, and this is the opportunity for individuals and organisations to make clear their support for music education. Full details are on the ISM website. Please take the time to add your name to the Protect Music Education campaign and to take part in the consultation.

Articles Opinion

ACE National Lottery Funds

The Pareto principle holds true yet again. This time on the geographic distribution of ACE National Lottery funds, with 80% of funding going to 20% of Local Authority areas.

Arts Professional reports on the situation: “The distribution of Lottery funding for the arts is a closed system, operating for the benefit of a small number of arts organisations but to the detriment of wider society and the economy, according to a new report by the authors who recently revealed England’s regional arts funding imbalance.”

Click here to read the Arts Professional article in full

So “it could be you” but only if you live in the right place…