The organisational orthodoxies are rapidly changing in our industry, and they’re doing so with very little strategy, so among other things in this short messy essay I’m going to arrogantly propose one, because fuck it, why shouldn't it be up to me.
An increasing number of venues are moving away from being artist-led. And let me start by saying that I don’t think a venue being run by a non-artist in itself means there’s a problem. Fifteen years or so ago there was a wave of this in Scotland in response to the brilliant job done by Neil Murray at the helm of the Tron: the model became tenable because Neil demonstrated it could work. Around the same time an increasing number of theatres across the UK gradually moved away from a sole leadership role where the Artistic Director was also Chief Executive, to either a joint leadership role, where there were two separate figures with hierarchical parity, or a model where the AD sat underneath the Chief Exec. This all became tenable in the face of mostly pragmatic considerations and there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this either, but it's now clear these changes were the thin end of the wedge. It is increasingly unorthodox even to assume that an arts organisation should be led by an artist.
The usual logic underlying this, very often at board level is that the “business” should be run by someone with “business skills”, allowing the artist to get on with the art. This is done with good intentions: and of course, the business side of things should serve and support the artistic side. But there aren't two sides. You don’t have to buy into the logic of free market capitalism to note that the business is the art. The business is art. Art is the beginning and the end of why we’re all here. There’s no harm in getting a decent pint while I’m in the building, but I didn’t put on the show in order to drive bar sales. If we drive a wedge between the arts organisation and the art itself, we get into very murky territory.
Even though the number is shrinking, there are still buildings run by people who direct plays, but even this isn't a particularly heterodox model. The Lyceum in Edinburgh is the only theatre I can think of run by any other kind of theatre artist. Why not more theatres run by writers? Why not a theatre run by a lighting designer? It becomes even more rare when you look not at mainstream theatre but at the section of the industry I exist in. Why not buildings run by Selina Thompson, Greg Wohead, Emma Frankland and Rachel Mars? I have absolutely no idea whether any of them would be interested, but I do know they’d be fucking great. These artists are all intimately involved in the producing side of the variously-constituted organsiations that serve as vehicles for their work. They combine a clarity of vision in their own work and an ability to nurture and support the development of myriad other artists whose visions differ. You don’t know the half of what most of them do for others. They all have an imagination and a capacity for problem-solving that would blow the doors off Fort Knox.
But not only are there almost no figures like these running arts organisations, there are barely any comparable figures twenty years older doing so. It’s hard enough to imagine any of us making a confidently sustainable living making our own art, never mind doing so at the helm of an organisation that exists for others.
There’s a presumption that the current generation of artists wouldn’t want this. I argue that we must want it. Otherwise arts organisations will get further and further from artists. Worse, the presumption that artists wouldn’t want the responsibility of leading an organisation is one part of a widespread well-intentioned infantilisation of artists. It’s necessary for artists to muster just enough of a grasp of producing skills for their career to take off. Then, all being well, someone else will take over these roles and the artist will no longer have to worry their pretty little heads about it. For some artists, this is the absolute dream and I wish those artists well. For plenty more, it’s massively disempowering. It limits your understanding of the context within which your work operates. It contributes to a drift away from artists having a place at the table in conversations about how our industry operates. But most artists are not special snowflakes who will melt if shown a spreadsheet. The industry does not need to operate on our behalf. The industry is our art, and there’s a danger of artists, by wittingly colluding in this infantilisation because it buys us an extra half-day a week, gradually giving up the tools we need to participate in conversations at the highest level.
This relates directly to artists’ understandable frustration at the increasing number of producers and programmers there are in the world, existing on salaries and making decisions about whether we get to earn a living. It’s important to note that many of these people do brilliant and valuable work, not least because curation is an art form in itself, with its own set of skills and crafts. But of course it’s frustrating for artists, because it establishes a clear hierarchy of value in which we consistently come off worse. I’m nearly forty, I’ve got two kids, I put an awful lot of time and energy back into supporting younger and emerging artists, and I still don’t know whether I’ll be earning a living in September.
There’s no big conspiracy at work. This is all done out of love for artists. But I do think that the best producers and programmers work on behalf of artists by working alongside them. Here are a few examples: Annabel Turpin, Katy Snelling, Ali Ford, Ben Rothera. I’m arguing not against the enormous achievements of these and many other remarkable individuals, and I'm certainly not arguing that they shouldn't continue doing what they're doing. What I'm arguing against is the increasingly orthodox assumption that the Venn diagram of producing skills and artistic skills is two separate circles. Buy this assumption and you get for free the assumption that no artist can ever run an arts organisation again.
So with the increasingly rare exception of a small number of mainstream theatre directors, the people at the helm of arts organisations have largely spent much of their careers up to that point working in those arts organisations in more junior roles. It’s a terrifyingly precarious time across our industry, and boards have an understandable aversion to the risk of appointing someone to a position when there’s nothing on their CV indicating their aptitude for the duties of in that position. Therefore it’s obvious we won’t get more artists in leadership positions if there aren’t more artists elsewhere in the organisation. In mainstream theatres this used, sometimes, to be the experience gathered by people in Associate Director roles. These days there are barely any such roles. And in our corner of the industry there never have been.
I have a very simple proposal: give an artist a job. Structure your jobs in arts organisations so that they can be done by artists: if an artistic director can direct two or three shows a year, a programmer or producer can make and tour one. More to the point, there can be no more important subsidy for the arts than paying an artist a salary.
Artists. We need an insurgency. Apply for programmer and producer jobs. Explain why an artist’s eye is of value in these roles. Demonstrate that artists have the skills required by these roles: we understand the funding context; we can use Excel, Word, Grantium, even YesPlan; we see a lot of work; we have a deeply embodied understanding of the challenges faced by emerging artists. It is our job to imagine the previously unimaginable. Imagine that.
Venues. Allow yourselves to imagine that this is not crazy, and equally importantly, it is not sour grapes*. Be open to structuring these roles to make it possible. Artists are not special snowflakes with no ultimate grip on hard reality. We will bring dynamism and diligence. Who better to hold relationships with artists than someone who has had the same set of experiences? How better to structure mentoring and artist development than in the person of someone for whom it is lived experience? What better way of demonstrating that it doesn’t have to be sheer bloody slog until the industry slowly forgets you? And fundamentally, who better to charge with the task of continually reimagining the industry than the only people, in the final analysis, it can’t survive without?
* Not in general, or in my case. I wouldn’t want you to think that I’ve written this because of some job application I’m annoyed wasn’t successful. Like everyone else like me, I thought those jobs were for other people: there’ve been no such applications. But there will be now.
Book of the week: As part of my research for Arthur I’ve been reading Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon, a beautiful book about the experience of parents whose children have lives far from what they could have imagined. He introduces the concept of vertical and horizontal identities, an incredibly useful construction which may pre-exist his work but which is new to me. A vertical identity is one that tends to be passed down from parent to child: skin colour is the clearest example of something that is thus inherited and around which identity is constructed, but other examples include nationality (with the exception of immigrants) and to a greater or lesser degree religion and class. Horizontal identities are those which children as often as not don’t share with their parents (although as in the above cases there are of course exceptions), and thus must be formed in relation to a peer group. Solomon’s own example is his homosexuality; others include traits as varied as genius, deafness and dwarfism. It’s a brilliant book about the contexts and processes of identity formation, but most of all it’s brilliant about the experience of parents:
“[My mother] didn’t want to control my life – though she did, like most parents, genuinely believe that her way of being happy was the best way of being happy. The problem was that she wanted to control her life, and it was her life as the mother of a homosexual that she wished to alter. Unfortunately there was no way for her to fix her problem without involving me.” Despite being a vivid depiction of these struggles, the book ultimately documents many ways in which parental love has managed to triumph. “We live in xenophobic times, when legislation with majority support abrogates the rights of women, LGBT people, illegal immigrants, and the poor. Despite this crisis of empathy, compassion thrives in the home, and most of the parents [in this book] love across the divide.”
Run of the week: I’ve been at ARC for a week working on Arthur so on Sunday I took the opportunity to run to Roseberry Topping, a hill piled high with memories for me. It’s about twelve miles away, so last time I did it I looped round from there via Captain Cook’s Monument and dropped into Great Ayton for lunch. This time I’m in training for a long race next weekend, so I joined the Cleveland Way and doubled the distance by carrying on all the way to Saltburn. Moors, peaks, rivers, streams, woods, cliffs, and seaside: this route had every kind of scenery and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Since then I’ve eased off a lot, partly to taper down for the 55K next Saturday, but equally because it’s the Clougha Pike fell race the day after tomorrow. It’s my first time at my local fell race, and while I don’t want to go all out and knacker myself for next weekend, equally, I want to be sharp enough not to have to stop and walk the steep bits.
TV of the week: I’ve paused my rewatch of season three after The Wire until after the cricket world cup. Eoin Morgan! In the meantime my list is piling up: Chernobyl, Years and Years, The Virtues, what else have I missed? Was Gentleman Jack good? What was that one about the woman who’s been released from prison? And for some reason I never did get round to the second season of Deadwood, which I want to see in order to watch the film. Is this an actual golden age of television? Perhaps, but it’s still not as good as The Wire and in next week’s TED talk I will explain to you why.
Writing report: it’s been a full week of writing for the first time in a very long time. So far I’ve been working on Arthur for odd days and half-days, with two days at a time a rarity. I’m far enough along that this isn’t too worrying in terms of the deadline, but you can only get so deep in this time. This week at ARC Stockton has been a blessing in that I’ve been able to fully immerse myself in it and thus get in way deeper. It’s also been well-timed in that I can never plunge straight into something without first spending time tracing its edges and contours. I need to develop a sense of where its centre is, where the heat is, where I can get deepest. Then I need time to put everything else aside, take a deep breath, and get into an unfamiliar land. That’s what this week has been. By the end of tomorrow I’ll have a finished draft and even though I’ll only have three or four half-days on it next week, having got this far I’ll be able to plunge straight back in at this depth with increasing confidence. I may even get a bit further. But perhaps I’ll just circle around another plunge pool until the week after when I have three days at a time again.
God, it’s really difficult to talk about the process of writing without sounding like a wanker.
Kids say the funniest things report: “Hello cat, hello dog, are you poorly? Better, better, better, better, better. All done now.”
Running with an idea
Running commentary on: