Monthly Archives: August 2016

Blog Post: Capital funding, buildings and Leeds

Leeds City Council is leading a process to come up with a cultural policy for the city. It is an admirably open, patient and democratic process. As part of that Cluny MacPherson- head of culture at the city council- has written a piece on capital funding and buildings.  I don’t agree with the acceptance of the logic of capital funding. It’s not necessarily a disagreement with what Cluny said per se, more I don’t think we have to start our thinking where he started his. He asked me to expand on my initial response which was “If we must accept logic of capital investment then let it be investment in people/skills/communities not just bricks” and that thinking is below. I haven’t posted it under his original blog for lots of reason but the main one is that I think the openness of the process of the council creating a cultural policy is brilliant. And nothing stops openness with the public like a long industry insider comment in the comments section. 
There are two unstoppable forces; entropy and government’s demand for expansion in the public sector.

Things will break apart eventually this we can be sure. And, with a gibbering national economy, year on year real-term reductions in funding and a public hit in the pocket, arts organisations that receive public funding need to demonstrate annual growth.

I’ve nothing against growth per se: Slung Low is a particularly spunky expansionist outfit never standing still for long. But sometimes the size of an outfit is just fine. And sometimes the easiest sort of growth is the wrong sort of growth for that organisation.

And capital can often be the easiest sort of growth. A few years ago a shrinking regional theatre audience, a tired leadership who had generally been in post for a while and huge pressures on funding combined to create a real sense of despair in the future direction of the theatre scene especially outside of London. There were numerous despairing conferences and meetings.

One of the options that was available to these organisations was capital funding. Build something new. Some theatres chose to rebuild their entire buildings, some chose to add auditoriums, some just their bar and restaurant. 

But most did at least one of those things. Of all the options available it’s the easiest option for boards. Capital are prestige projects: You can name an auditorium after a rich lad, it is a solid focus for your fundraising activity, it’s a set task around which you can galvanise your staff and supporters. It is substantially easier than the general philanthropic expansion also demanded.

And the capital funding can support some of your core activity; pay for time of fundraisers, project managers, execs, all sorts of other costs that take the pressure off the core costs that are such a big weight for big theatre buildings.

So it’s a winner, right. Capital for everyone.

The cost of capital is expansion. You want to build a new restaurant the argument that has to be made is that you can sell more meals in that restaurant because more chairs, or it is so much nicer that more people will come to it. You’ll raise more money over time because you’ll sell more meals to more people so the government is helping, so the argument goes, for organisations to stand on their own two feet, to be resilient. (resilient against a removal of government funding but that’s a different argument for a different day).

There are some theatres who have made a glorious success of this model. It is a major plank of the neo-liberal funding logic that sees subsidy as pump-priming rather than a natural state of being. I don’t agree with that definition of arts funding: some things are best owned and operated solely within the public realm and beyond the full pressures of market forces. Regional theatre is one of those things.

A financial focus on capital, a secured substantial pot, is an artificial pressure on the industry. It is a force of change that isn’t driven by artists, or by audience, or artistic vision, or by community need. It is driven by a number of forces laid out above; some organisational, some fundraising, some conservative, some ego. And I’m not convinced that it creates resilience at all. Whilst there are some good examples of new shiny buildings who are successful and triumphant after their rebuild (Liverpool’s recent announcement of a rep season two years after their rebuild was particularly positive I thought) there are also many examples of theatres who got caught in the ego chase of a capital project and found themselves shiny and lonely in the middle of the town centre, wheezing under new staff costs and completely unable to shift their £9 fish finger sandwich that anyone with any sense could have told them were bad ideas. 
Not all growth is good. Not all directions of growth are good. And if you can’t fill 1200 seats a night you are unlikely to be able to fill 1500 seats a night, no matter how nice your new restaurant and foyer. But it is a central plank of how to maintain a modern arts organisation and so it makes complete sense for Chief Execs and Board Chairs to chase that particular chicken. When they catch it they’ve secured their organisation’s future for the next five or so years, given a bright shiny veneer of success and it will most likely be someone else’s problem to solve how on earth those fish finger sandwiches are going to get flogged. A number of towns, having used substantial amounts of public capital funding to build new theatres, fail to commit to funding and staffing them in the way that was once promised: their decline and reliance on regular bail-out funding is all too likely.
I don’t think for a second that capital funding isn’t necessary. Buildings need fixing. I’m even willing to allow that occasionally you might have to build a brand new theatre. Fix the roof if it leaks. Re-upholster your seats if you insist on having them. That isn’t my issue. It’s the acceptance firstly of capital as some sort of magic money that can never be confused with revenue: if the last year taught us anything it’s that there is nothing solid in politics and economy so I don’t buy Cluny’s assertion that the capital and revenue are different bank accounts that are really unconnected- what impact will central government’s capital decision to build the huge Factory arts centre in Manchester going to have on that city’s revenue funding set-up for example.
But mostly my issue with received wisdom around capital funding is that with all the pressures our large arts organisations are under it would be negligent for executives not to pursue all possible resources but capital expansion is profoundly changing the nature of our theatre scene, the focus of our theatres and the staff that work in them; it has an impact on ticket pricing, on the layout of the front of house, of who feels welcome and the nature of the space and all of that is being driven by non artistic forces. It’s a whole set of targets and pressures that often make it much harder for buildings to be the generous central supporters and leaders of their city’s theatre scene. And it’s a huge part of funding that by its very nature presupposes a theatre building as a default position of best theatre practice, the focus of our funding and our work.

Wales and Scotland have two of the most exciting national theatres in the world- neither of which have buildings. Meanwhile we keep building more and more of them in the north even though we can’t fill the ones we have. I don’t think that it is the state of the buildings themselves that are stopping people coming to the theatre. But I think for some building a new one gave them a break from thinking about how to fill the one they already have. I don’t think it increases resilience. I think it kicks the impossible question of how to make a regional producing theatre scene resilient without government funding further down the road. But each day it changes the theatre scene we’ll be left with if that day ever comes.
Slung Low applied for capital funding a few years ago. WHAT ALAN?! That’s a hell of a 3rd Act reveal- chill your beans friends, we’ll get there. 

We got it, just over 90 grand. We spent ten fixing the roof at the HUB, bought some hot water bottles and blankets for audience and spent most of the rest on two things. 

One was 800 headphones. One of the issues of working for regional theatres is they are strapped for cash. Slung Low shows cost money, proper money. Buying headphones for all the audience to hear the show and paying our creative fees is not easy. Now they don’t have to pay both. Hire Slung Low and we bring our gear with us. It makes it easier for theatres to be bold and programme the different type of work we make. And it means we can get paid. That’s our attempt at a form of resilience.

The other thing we did with the money is buy a van. It was our second van. The capital money meant we could buy and insure a van for anyone to borrow it. We lend it to other theatre companies and makers. It’s out all the time. Except for hairy arsed bands who trash it we’ve never turned anyone down for any other reason than it was already out. Over the years dozens and dozens of theatre projects have used it. For free. Naturally. That’s resilience.

It was a very nuanced argument we made to qualify the above for capital funding. To argue that to give away our resources was about sector resilience. That is a very hard argument for the Arts Council to approve in the face of the pressure they’re under. We were much helped and led in that argument by Cluny MacPherson who used to run Yorkshire arts council before he ran Leeds city council culture. Hate the game not the player.
The arguments that the arts have had to make defending funding over the last 8 years have been torturous. There is a danger that we start to believe the things we do to survive are the reason why we exist. We give up the direction of our art form, the core value of what we do, to board chairs and external pressures at our peril. I’ve heard of two Artistic Directors who have left their organisations because of a conflict with the board over a capital project they had foistered on them. That’s two too many.
We recently created a hostel. Five beds that those in the area on theatre business can come and stay in. The idea was that companies in residence at the HUB or small scale touring or bloggers visiting Leeds might find their tasks more achievable because that large cost of accommodation was removed. One of the main issues in Leeds is that we fail to retain our talent beyond five years. We’ve lots of early graduates which is great. But not that mid range/ aged artist or company- the list of those that tried and moved down south is very long. To make something without substantial funding happen in the city is hard. There’s less spare rooms to crash in than there should be because they all moved to London. The idea of the hostel is to try and make engaging with West Yorkshire’s alternative scene easier, increase the diversity of work being made and shown and written about in the city. It’s an attempt at resilience.

At time of writing it had been live for three days. Two different groups have applied to use the hostel already. Both are performing at the big theatre up the road. The money to open your new show at the most funded theatre in the city won’t cover the cost of digs. This isn’t resilience. It is a system that doesn’t work. We need to fix it before it transforms beyond use. And we need to stop building new theatres and start working out what to do with the ones we’ve got.

There is more pressure on funding and more work to be done than ever. Ring fencing a large portion of cultural public money for Capital projects encourages the wrong headed notion that shiny new buildings are the answer to anything.