The price of Arts Activism

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

Talking to a colleague in New York last week, I mentioned how important it was to me that I felt the work I directed had the potential to change the world, however incrementally; that it was central to me to leave the audience thinking, feeling, or acting differently; to give them a gift that they could carry out of the theatre into the wider world. It’s a feeling I recognise in many theatre makers of my generation; an instinctive activism that marks our work indelibly.

For my American friend though, my assumption that theatre and the arts are implicitly tools for change was a strange one. In his ecology, the possibility of activating an audience, of sending them out into the world changed and empowered is seen as a dangerous risk that will alienate the private funders that form the financial bedrock of the US theatre landscape. Those patrons wealthy enough to kick in thousands of dollars to support a piece of theatre have accumulated the financial resources to do so through successful manipulation of current socio-political mechanisms; through inherited privilege or through exploiting the western capitalist market economy that helps the affluent become rich and the rich become obscenely so. It stands to reason that anyone profiting so handsomely from the current social mechanisms would be reluctant to fund art that seeks to undermine that status quo.

In the UK, the inexorable march of austerity has encouraged everyone in the arts community to think about ways to develop income streams beyond the subsidised model. We seek out ways to be more entrepreneurial and cultivate private and corporate donors in the hope that they’ll plug the gaps that government cuts have left in our balance sheets. By and large, this diversification of income streams is seen as a positive thing – the more places we get our money from, the more resilient we are to changes in our ecology. In the past ten years, an organisation’s dependence on public subsidy has been transformed from a badge of honour; a mark of valued status as a cultural flagship, into a liability that leaves our cultural heritage vulnerable to the caprice of market economics.

In our hurry to compensate for the reductions in state funding over the past few years, have we truly considered the implications of this new ‘entrepreneurial’ ecology? Our National theatre has already rebranded its’ Cottesloe theatre as the Dorfman, in honour of a £10 million donation from the founder of Travelex, itself a major corporate sponsor, and it’s now normal to see corporate brand identities stamped across our cultural institutions. Besides public goodwill and a significant tax write-off, how much influence does donating more than 10% of turnover buy?

For the National Theatre, an organisation rooted in the cultural mainstream, perhaps the question is somewhat moot. But what of the smaller countercultural flagships like BAC, CPT or Ovalhouse? Each of those organisations has built a reputation on supporting innovative artistic practice and politically activist new work. I’ve seen vicious, political, angry, activist and downright weird theatre at each one; theatre that actively challenges the status quo; that criticises the structures our society rests on; that shocks or offends; that makes me want to riot. The artistic programmes at all of those organisations are run by incredibly principled people committed to supporting artists to say whatever they damn well want, however they want. But as state subsidy continues to shrink, what would it take to shake that? 5% of turnover? 10%? 20%?

If an oil company offered a £200,000 donation to any one of those theatres, should they accept it knowing that the biggest issue affecting humanity over the next 20 years will be climate change; knowing that their theatre forms part of a cultural narrative that must drive the shift towards a more sustainable future? Would the perspective change if it was a bank making the donation? A bank that financed oil companies? Or fracking? Or the arms trade?

Many arts organisations have ethical policies to safeguard their core values, but the more state funding of the arts is cut, the more ethics and activism begins to feel like a luxury. While its rare, in this country, to hear about private or corporate donors demanding quid pro quo. It’s important that we consider to what extent we lay ourselves open to self-censorship and what harm we do by allowing unethical brand identities to align with our own. Will that rock opera about childhood obesity be quite as hard-hitting if it’s sponsored by Coca Cola? Will the devastating play about the exploitation of cheap labour in developing countries change anything if its costumes are sponsored by Primark? It’s important to realise that consciously or not, every pound of private or corporate money we accept risks making artists less independent and less able to genuinely pursue the activist agendas of their choice.

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