Arts Funding; a cue to throw out business models?

5 November 2015

All over the globe, governments are plugging millions from their arts budgets, in a bid to offset costs to rising deficits and living standards. But are arts executives also losing the internal heavyweight battles against their artistic counterparts in their role to maintain economic sustainability within their organisations?

If arts funding could be personified, it’d definitely be a Kardashian. Controversial, increasingly hard to get access to, and never out of the headlines for very long.

Just last week, Australia’s arts minister George Brandis wielded the axe on the Australia Council’s six-year funding round; the wound is a $104.7m black hole in financial support to arts institutions down under. Weeks before, his Quebec counterpart Hélène David announced similarly dismal measures - this, a province that has produced musical legacies in the form of Celine Dion, Leonard Cohen and Oscar Peterson.

To some, the cuts are an unavoidable process in reducing deficits; others see it as an ignorant product of right-wing policy. But I can’t help but feel stranded in the ‘no man’s land’ between the two camps. The director inside me observes the current financial troubles plaguing our arts scene at home, and the lack of focus on attaining deficit-neutral administrative costs, or responsibly putting on productions that - heavens forbid - allow you to make some money. Even second-hand revenue streams such as music videos, advertising deals or recently revived corporate partnerships have allowed major cultural institutions, such as the Royal Opera House, to deliver vibrant performing arts programmes consistently for the last 25 years. I was surprised that, on my last visit to the Coliseum to see Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel in the opening night of ENO’s Sweeney Todd, four out of five strangers that I met were entertaining clients from the Far East. Recent marketing reports have tried to show that MNCs are ditching the classical arts in favour of winning over their guests with more visually impressive sporting and theatrical spectacles but this wasn’t the case here – perhaps down to the commercial draw of such a cast and production. Nevertheless, the run has been one of ENO’s most successful over the last few years, and few critics could argue that it hurt the company’s artistic ambitions.

Classical music lovers would have done well to avoid the recent storm brewing around the company – a loss of nearly a third in public funding to the organisation last year, steadily followed by a string of high-profile resignations. But however much I love the arts, £17.2m still sounds like a lot of money to be slipping into any one pocket.

And this is the core of the issue for me. The Arts Council support an impressive portfolio of arts institutions, subsidising some of the most exciting, innovative and inspiring projects in modern day culture. But how many organisations offer such extensive funding without an advisor or mentor to support the implementation of such finances? If you go to a bank for a loan, you are entrusted to a business advisor, who is there to assist you with all financial aspects of your business; the Prince’s Trust offer mentoring support to all successful start-ups for an initial two-year term, Nouvague being one of the beneficiaries.

© English National Opera 2015.

We’ve seen with the banking crisis that even the allegedly most capable can get it wrong, and applying the same logic, I feel that there should also be some responsibility on the Arts Council to re-look at the mechanisms around how they distribute their money. Or better still, how they manage the use of their money after it’s distributed.

It’s well known that throwing money at a problem doesn’t fix it. The executives in our arts organisations aren’t just crying out for money, they’re looking for armoury. Outside support to combat difficult conversations with, in some cases, some big creative personalities with equally huge ambitions.

The solution? Perhaps a new standalone mentoring programme for the arts run by some of the UK's business changemakers, designed to parent a healthy balance between artistic and economic sustainability for our historic arts scene.

Funding isn’t everything.

Maybe both parties just don’t know it yet.

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About the Author

James Fleury is founder and CEO of Nouvague, a cutting edge music marketing agency based in the UK & Los Angeles, specialising in marketing services for classical music. 

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