Whistleblowers and the arts

An edited version of this piece appeared on the Guardian Culture Blog on 30 April 2015.

One of my favourite things about being part of the theatre community is the way we all pull together. We support each other through thick and thin, fight each others’ corners and generally help each other out whenever we can. It’s a brilliant thing, knowing that you can call for help and someone will always answer. But sometimes (and I must stress that this is the exception rather than the rule), our instinct to protect each other does more harm than good. That unity that signifies our strength is a double-edged sword that occasionally injures the very ecology we all seek to protect.

Whenever two or more theatre people gather you hear them. The whispers. The tales of the low-level bad practice and large-scale incompetence, or worse, dishonesty, that pepper our industry. Every month I’m party to a handful of conversations suggesting that somewhere something is going badly wrong.

The whispers cover a lot of ground; from major financial malpractice to petty bullying and general incompetence. Of course, what I hear might not be true, but sometimes multiple stories about the same subject converge to form such a critical mass that it becomes impossible to dismiss the possibility that at their heart lies a kernel of truth.

There are the stories of sexual harassment, bullying, financial malpractice and dishonesty. There are the organisations that claim ownership over an artist’s work in exchange for virtually nothing; the marketing departments that never deliver what they promise and the funding applications filled with misdirection and sleight of hand. Everybody has a story. But those stories are rarely more than whispers; there are truths universally acknowledged but never fully voiced. And recently I’ve started to wonder why.

In an industry so embattled and competitive for resources, why don’t we call each other out more? Identify the bad apples for the greater good? Imagine: if every money wasting incompetence or petty dishonesty was called to account, how much would the savings amount to?

Yet it’s an industry that functions almost entirely through personal networking. An industry built on trust to nurture artistic creativity and collaboration at all levels. How could we continue to trust each other artistically if everyone we worked with was a potential informer? The industry also relies on personal relationship and recommendation where a reputation for being ‘challenging’ can decimate a career. Any of the people you work with might one day be asked to give you an informal recommendation. It’s understandable that many organisations would be wary of hiring an identified whistleblower for fear of exposing themselves to criticism in future. And while employees technically have some protection from dismissal under whistleblower laws, it’s not really that simple in an industry where most people are self-employed working on a project-by-project basis. Besides, many of the ‘whispers’ are as much to do with laziness, incompetence and bad practice as with anything that might be covered under whistleblower legislation.

Then there’s the added difficulty of who to tell. ACE have neither the resources nor the remit to interrogate every aspect of artistic and business practice. And to ask them to do so would irrevocably damage the wonderful nurturing relationships they build with artists and organisations across the country.

Nonetheless, the culture of self-evaluation and reporting within our funding systems doesn’t help. Arts organisations are responsible for reporting their own success or failure to funding bodies and of course, those reports naturally put a rosy tint on even the direst circumstances. This absence of rigorous and impartial oversight can lead to systemic failings that skew how we understand the entire ecology; it can make it look like every organisation is succeeding while audience numbers fall, artists go underpaid and innovation stalls.

In this climate of austerity where every penny of arts funding is pinched by those holding the purse strings, it’s surprising that the publicly subsidised arts sector doesn’t have more robust and impartial structures for evaluation and oversight. In an ecology increasingly encouraged to mimic the private sector in our business practices, its baffling that we don’t also mimic the rigorous evaluation practices that characterise private sector working. We’re under such pressure to develop ‘resilient business models’ that it seems unthinkable that no one has thought to question the efficacy of self-evaluation. But what’s the alternative?

The sheer cost of the bureaucracy of a centralised Ethics and Standards authority would surely outweigh any savings and if there’s one thing I know to be true, it’s that directing money away from artists is not the way to achieve great art for everyone.

There are those that will take this blog as a reason to reduce funding to the arts. It isn’t. The arts provide a massive net gain to the UK economy. Properly supported, with a rigorous system of evaluation, impartial oversight and accountability we have the potential to grow the value of our economic, social and cultural contribution exponentially. But in order to do that we need mechanisms to safely identify systemic failure, incompetence and wrongdoing.

Those of us working in the arts are the lucky few; we’re the ones privileged to do what we love every day. When we look the other way to wrongdoing or accept incompetence and inefficiency as par for the course we are cheating ourselves and our community. The arts exist to tell society the truth about itself but until we start calling each other to account and facing our own unpleasant truths then we don’t deserve the privilege of being called artists.

So what can we do?

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Email: rebecca [at] arch468.com                    

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