In 2011/12 the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) was the Arts Council’s fifth highest regularly funded organisation (RFO) with a grant of £16,413,895 (down from £17,639,392 the previous year) behind The Royal Opera House, Southbank Centre, National Theatre and English National Opera. These top five organisations account for a third of the Arts Council’s total RFO budget so they are always under pressure to justify their funding, particularly when Government spending is being cut elsewhere. In an article titled Why Major Theatre Institutions Should Be Left To Die The Guardian theatre critic, Lyn Gardner, argues that, ‘The artists of tomorrow are not made through funding an elite but by funding at the bottom of the pyramid’ and that rather than promoting participation in the arts, the big theatres suppress it.
Gardner is not the first journalist, or indeed tax payer, to question arts subsidy. When the last round of cuts was announced in April 2011 Quentin Letts in The Daily Mail agreed that in a recession the arts should share the same pain as everyone else and Charles Spencer in The Telegraph seemed to enjoy seeing theatre companies he didn’t like losing their funding. The American playwright, David Mamet, doesn’t think there should be any subsidy at all; in his book, Theatre, he said, ‘The theatre is a magnificent example of the workings of that particular bulwark of democracy, the free-market economy’. But Gardner is not anti-subsidy, she just disagrees with how it’s spent.
Arts Council funding is never just about the arts, they have a social agenda too; in 1984 the Glory Of The Garden report emphasised regional development, in 2004 the Art Of Inclusion report stressed the role of the arts in tackling social divisions and in 2008 the McMaster Review put artistic excellence firmly, if controversially, in the top spot. The current Arts Council policy document, Achieving Great Art For Everyone includes an appendix which defines five goals for subsidised theatres accompanied by ‘areas of focus’ to tell them how to achieve them. The five goals are as follows, accompanied by what steps I think, as an audience-member, the RSC is taking to achieve them:
1. Talent and artistic excellence are thriving and celebrated. The areas of focus guidelines recommend ‘risk-taking, experimentation and ambition’ and ‘collaborations, including international ones’ so if you wondered why the RSC co-produced Troilus And Cressida with the American Wooster Group and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It) with the Russian Dmitry Krymov, that’s why.
2. The arts leadership and workforce are diverse and highly skilled. The black and Asian casts for Julius Caesar and Much Ado presumably contribute to this goal as will Erica Whyman’s appointment as deputy artistic director and the number of female directors scheduled for next season.
3. More people value and enjoy the arts. The areas of focus specify several actions to achieve this goal including; use London 2012 to reach new audiences, experiment with digital distribution and build the quality and range of theatre for young people. The RSC is leading the World Shakespeare Festival and therefore features prominently in the Year Of Shakespeare project; Greg Doran’s Julius Caesar was broadcast on television, Tim Crouch’s I, Cinna was streamed to schools via the internet and the RSC has created its own Shakespeare portal called MyShakespeare, The Young People’s Shakespeare is doing some great work and the Open Stages project is getting more people into that beautiful new theatre.
4. Every child and young person has the opportunity to experience the richness of the arts. Same area of focus as goal 3 and you could add the Stand Up For Shakespeare campaign, Matilda in the West End, a good education department and plenty of online resources for teachers.
5. The arts sector is sustainable, resilient and innovative. The area of focus says ‘Build on best practice to encourage environmental sustainability within the arts’. This one is hard to assess from the stalls but the RSC chairman, Nigel Hugill, has a track record in urban development so if anyone can enforce an environmental policy, I’m sure he can.
So the RSC is hitting all its Arts Council targets but when non-artistic objectives on diversity, environmental sustainability and digital technology outnumber artistic ones does that promote or stifle the arts? Commercial sponsorship can be as controversial as public subsidy, as the recent BP protests showed, so if we want great theatre, shouldn’t we just fund great theatre companies without conditions? Or is Lyn Gardner right and if the Arts Council is serious about diversity and participation, might they be better off giving £1 million a year to a diverse group of sixteen different companies? Or half a million to 32 companies? Or a quarter of a million to 64 companies?