We, the disruptors, need to stand up!
Having just been to the Venture Capital Conference in Belfast organised by inter trade Ireland the state and public perception of the arts becomes clear. It is a strange event to go to I admit but with the advent of cuts to public funding I feel that the arts and culture section need to look towards new funding opportunities and these include those predominately availed of by corporate bodies. Why should an arts organisation not approach an Angel investor, Venture capitalist? Is there something so inherently wrong with this approach? Now I know that the argument against will probably contain references to profit and being profit orientated which will distract from the independence of art but I am not advocating the totally immersion into solely looking at the bottom line but for certain projects, certain organisations this model to me makes a lot of sense.
Imagine for one moment a time when there is no public finance or as is more likely the case a time when public finance is dispersed by the large public bodies to only a select number of arts organisations who in turn should then disperse this to the smaller organisations? This model already happen so in England and could be the model adopted by the Arts Council even as early as 2015. Add to this that the available funding will be decreased and will stipulate that it can only be used for artistic means and not for core costs. Now I think that a move towards the model adopted by corporate business starts to become clearer and necessary.
Arts organisations are great at what they do, not only because of the services they offer but a this service depends on the venue or building on which rent has to be paid, the almost impossibility to obtain exemption from rates but most importantly for the 32,000 directly employed in the arts sector, the staff. How will these core costs be met? It will be no use in screaming to the local funding authority or the arts council or government for by then the situation will be too late and I for one would certainly not see this situation reversed no, maybe controversially, should this situation be reversed. No arts organisations should at this stage be looking at new ways of generating revenue to cover these costs and to achieve this it can only look at a model that includes profit generation for certain projects or streams. This might in fact encourage a more diverse arts programme rather than a reduction or amalgamation of the arts into a series of events directed towards popular culture. As a lot of organisations will be going for the same pot of disposable income each will have to find its unique selling point, that advantageous element that it has over another and to capitalise on that rather than providing the same programme was its neighbour.
Going back to my initial comments about where arts and culture fit into state and public perception the conference highlighted to gulf that exists, without explicitly mentioning it, between the corporate world and the other sectors. Three of the speakers were from state organisations, Enterprise Ireland, InvestNI and Intertrade Ireland, each of whom highlighted to amount of finance that they had from the two center all governments to put towards investment, figures which dwarfed the amounts given to either Arts Council. The closet was in fact the direct investment by the another. Ireland assembly which had earmarked £28 million towards one scheme from InvestNI, the total for all the schemes for InvestNI came to around £190 million, compare this to the £12 million that the Arts Council of Northern Ireland gets and you can start to get an idea of the disproportionate amounts towards corporates and the arts. So maybe it is time for the arts sector to stop kidding itself that it is an important sector, that the government takes a serious interest in the arts. For further proof another line that came out of the conference is the increase in investment by both governments, and a substantial increase at that compared with the 33% cut that the arts council has had in the last three years or the almost total deviation of Culture Ireland by the sitting emcomberants in the Dail. Now is there a picture starting to emerge, if arts and culture were important and seen as an important part to boost the Irish economy would we have such significant cuts? No as far as the government is concerned arts and culture only play an important role when the economy is on the cusp of a wave.
So why should we, and when I say we I am talking about arts organisations, not be looking to encroach on this space, to coin one of the corporate worlds favourite sayings at the moment, why don’t we disrupt this, put our own spokes in the wheels of industry? We don’t because we are passive and afraid. We don’t consider ourselves to be of financial worth otherwise we would be outside the Dail protesting, lobbying ministers, staging protests, doing all we can to highlight the positive effects and economic benefit that a thriving arts and culture sector provides. The recent Arts Council survey suggest that over 99,000 people were indirectly employed in the arts sector and Noel Kelly from Visual Artists Ireland even suggests that this figure rises to over 5.8 million when you include Europe. Now to me this is a huge body of people whose whole life is at stake and also a huge number of people who “invest” in the economy of the country through taxes, spending and savings. It’s time we lost this passive mentality and rather than licking our silent wounds we should be getting our hands dirty in disruption, financial disruption.
Through all our dealings with one of our main stakeholders we have come into close contact with a number of other social enterprises, another sector that faces the same financial difficulties as the arts sector. From the fourteen companies that we have close contact with over the past two years, each at the outset stating their position and engagement with the social sphere that they deal in and that it was the sector and not finance that was important, thirteen of them are now looking at corporate revenue streams not to be their main thrust but to supplement their revenue, to allow the to continue to provide the services they offer and ultimately allowing them to offer increased services to a greater section of their targeted society. To me this is the type of model that the arts sector should be looking at, an enhancement allowing growth rather than the only way to survive. In the corporate sector there are research and development units whose job it is to look and validate new sectors, new products, new methods. This incurs a huge cost and as the vast majority of these ideas never come to fruition the financial loss is great and needs to be made up by other revenue streams. If we look at this model and impose our own notions on it we can see that the experimental event, the alternative performance, the group who meet to look at ideas is in fact the arts sectors research and development, we can afford these costs provided that we can cover this by other revenue streams but without loosing our focus on our aims and goals, the section of the arts sector we are looking to serve.
The sector needs to loose the affinity towards public funding and grant rounds. We also need to look away from the notion of the philanthropic donor who will step onto fill the void because even though there are people who can step in we in the sector are all chasing the same people, people who support the arts but people who do not have a bottomless cave of money to give to all. No we need to start looking at new models, models as I have highlighted are alien and in some ways perceived as offensive to the arts sector but ways at the end of the day will ensure that the sector survives, maybe not as a whole but at least survives. A sector which I feel will embrace these changes once the animosity towards them has been removed and the sector will thrive. A sector that can bring new creative methods to investment and models that even corporates will embrace, something that can only increase the importance of the arts sector. Creativity has always been a great innovator and in the arts sector creativity is something we have an abundance of. Arts need to be taken seriously but to achieve this we have to play our part to, we need to be disruptive, shake the system and the hand that feeds us.
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