In her last blog as TB’s Director of Research, Tanuja Amarasuriya does some unfiltered thinking about how we might reimagine artist-venue relationships to shake up the power imbalances and collaborate better.
One of the – perhaps predictable – issues that emerged from the Money Talks survey that Theatre Bristol conducted was around a lack of transparency and perceived unfairness in artist-venue relationships.
Over the last few months I’ve been in conversation with the excellent Jo Newman at Wiltshire Creative about how we could use the newly formed Venues South West (VSW) network to test out some ways to address these problems.
Here’s the initial email I sent her:
I just wanted to run an idea by you for the Venues South West network. At the back end of last year, we ran a rough and ready survey of independent artists and producers about money. One of the biggest things that came up was that independents are often very clued up on good practice with money and partnerships, and there’s lots of training for independents in this area; but there’s a perception that venues/organisations are never required to change/update/improve their partnerships with independents. There’s a real sense that the onus is always for the independents to adapt.
One of the next stages is definitely to get the perspective of organisations on all this. I deliberately aimed the survey only at people who identified as independent as I didn’t want to set up an automatic division within the structure of the survey, and I think it’s important that the next stages start from the position of artists and venues being on the same team.
I’m wondering if, given the aims of the VSW network, we could use it to do some joined up thinking about how, as a sector, we can improve power imbalances, perceptions, and practice in this area – and actually test some stuff out?
Here’s a link to the headline findings from the survey: https://theatrebristol.net/money-talks-an-update-on-the-freelancers-survey/
What do you reckon? Would you be up for chatting and throwing some ideas around about this?”
VSW is a new informal network. One of their stated aims is to discuss ways in which, as a network of venues, they can better support artists to work with venues in the region. Jo Newman was instrumental in bringing the network together, and she’s super keen for VSW to take some lead in improving the industry.
So where to start? These money issues are complex. They are both systemic and personal at the same time. Every artist and every organisation has different needs and different circumstances. Change takes energy and commitment and most people who work in this industry are already working their butts off with tiny resources. And most people, whether inside or outside organisations, genuinely believe they’re doing the best they can.
But just because a problem is complicated, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t address it. In fact, it probably means we should actively set aside our hero vanity, dive into the knottiness and see if we can’t even make just that little bit of difference. It’s a failure to deal with deeply embedded structural problems like how money moves around the sector, that makes our industry seem impenetrable, unsafe, and utterly biased. It’s vital we change it up.
I’ve been talking to Jo about how TB can help her, and as many of rest of VSW as are up for it, to work towards some better futures for artist-venue relationships. We can’t solve all the problems for everyone [at least not straight away…] but let’s channel the energy that’s there, recognise that we might not get it right first time, and see what happens when we take more collective responsibility for making things better.
As this is my last week at TB, I’m going to indulge in a bit of dreaming about what different artist-venue relationships might look like.
Dreams of a new future
What if venues programmed less work and invested more time, money, audience development and care in the work they did programme?
What if everyone involved got to say what they really wanted out of this relationship at the start, and this was built into the contract and partnership?
What if everywhere used Emily Williams & Alice Tatton Brown’s Contracts of Care model?
What if artists had all the producing and touring money, and venues had to pitch to present the work they wanted to show?
What if venues had to take responsibility for all the touring costs?
What if visiting artists understood the actual overheads of running the venue they’re working with?
What if there was a MASSIVE RED BUZZER that went off whenever anyone tried to go for ‘cheapest’ rather than ‘best possible’ in any negotiations?
What if there was no such thing as “artist development” and only ever “production development”?
What if venues cared as much about marketing studio shows as “main house” shows – even if the main house show had a bigger box office target?
What if there was a clear, workable industry standard for artist daily rates that acknowledged overheads and the value of growing expertise? Like this a-n one for visual artists.
What if venues paid for artists’ time, every time they were invited in for a meeting?
What if the norm was that venues travelled to artists for meetings rather than artists being expected to travel to venues?
What if good practice case studies were easily available to point to and crib from?
What if there was a kitemark for organisations who negotiate to a standard of fair practice?
What if freelancers were always paid on time?
What if there was a standard figure you could put into an Arts Council grant application to cover the time to write the bid?
What if there was a “fundraising” pot that independents could apply to, to cash-flow time to write funding bids, whether successful or not? Perhaps a portion of successful fundraising could be paid back to the fund?
What if there was a way to expose bad practice (on whoever’s part) as a way to learn and move forward, rather than to shame and vilify?
What if Arts Council England required that funded venues spend a minimum proportion of their subsidy on paying artists?
What if venue-based fundraisers had to commit a proportion of their time to fundraising for independent artists?
What if venue-based marketers had to commit a proportion of their time to audience development for independent artists?
Some of these futures might exist already. Some of these futures might work out terrible. I think they’re all worth thinking about. If they do exist, let us know where we can find them. If they don’t, maybe we can find ways to travel towards them together.