Why Douglas McPherson isn't entirely wrong


Last week, a gentleman named Douglas McPherson wrote a comment piece for the Daily Telegraph. In it, he criticised the culture of public funding for the arts on the basis that, in his experience, publicly funded work serves only a narrow, self-selecting audience, whereas the commercial sector – because of the profit incentive – produces work for the multitudes which is, by his definition inevitably more successful. He writes:

“Not all art can be commercially viable, but the best will be - and the best is all we, the public, need.”

Since his column was published, I've heard it decried in its entirety from noon 'til night by artists – many of them brilliant – and audiences too. For all the backlash, though, and for all that certain remarks (like the one quoted above) strike me as misguided, I'm not quite so convinced as many in our industry that he's altogether wrong.

There is a great and growing divide between the subsidised and the commercial sectors in the UK. True, in London especially, some enterprising producers o'erleap it, with productions by the National Theatre transferring to the West End and so forth, but the majority of small- and medium-scale theatre companies adopt one of two entirely different business models: either they pitch for grant-derived funding, or they make work to sell directly to audiences, upon whom they then depend for their very survival. And never the twain shall meet.

At its best, sure, the commercial model may do as McPherson imagines and reward the most worthy new work, but that statement alone is difficult to get your head around. Who determines 'worth' (as opposed to 'value' or 'value for money')? Is it the punter? The programmer? The critic? Doesn't this model under-represent minority audience groups? Doesn't it encourage theatre makers to be conservative to the point of stagnation? Doesn't it penalise novelty and give audiences what they ask for rather than what they actually want?

This last distinction is a crucial one. How often have we clamoured for sequels only to be disappointed when one is released? “Leave them wanting more” is a foundational philosophy of western theatre, but utterly anathema to the commercial producer, whose bills keep rolling in, refusing to defer to concerns about artistic probity.

So the profit-based model alone is deeply flawed, as those who excoriate McPherson have so eloquently remarked. But the public model isn't flawless by a long stretch. McPherson is right that audiences are now dangerously homogeneous – even the Arts Council is not reticent about saying so. Since new punters are not necessary to fuel a model which doesn't really incentivise outreach, audience demographics remain stubbornly unchanged from what they were years or decades ago. People living many miles from London subsidise new work which premiers in the theatres of the capital and is too rarely built primarily to tour. If public money subsidises cheap day tickets that's all very well, but non-Londoners can't afford to travel all the way down on the offchance there are some left for them that day.

All this aside, though, the greatest problem with the public funding model – and the point where I find myself endorsing McPherson (albeit cautiously) – is the cursory way in which 'legacy' is tacked on to the grant awarding process. If public money is to be targeted at developing new artists, new audiences and new inventions, then the long-term goal must surely be that those big organisations which have reaped the rewards for so long become independent over time, learning to stand on their own two feet, indebted to the public but no longer paid for twice-over by them. Answerable to their boards they must remain, and to charitable objectives where applicable, but crucially to audiences who notoriously vote with their feet. Operations like the National Theatre, the Barbican and the RSC should begin to wean themselves off their continual recourse to the public purse and craft art for everyone. That doesn't mean that everyone should like everything they stage – far from it – but that they must diversify; they must respond – not just to the raised voices of a congregation of converts, but to the demands of a wider public whose taxes too have helped sustain them thus far. A middle ground in the private/public funding debate; a more responsive, healthy, challenging theatrical culture for the many and the few.


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