Thursday, June 13, 2013

A clarion call from Ruth Mackenzie

Ruth Mackenzie delivered the opening address at the Theatres Trust 2013 Conference, held on Tues 11 June. Ruth is a senior arts executive, formerly head of Nottingham Playhouse, and subsequently adviser to the DCMS for ten years under a previous government. In 2012, she delivered the Cultural Olympiad, for which she was awarded recently a CBE.

Conference 2013 Reporter Fin Kennedy was there to hear her speak.

Ruth started by telling us this was a timely conference - a 'wake-up call'. We can't avoid the politics taking place around us; the Comprehensive Spending Review is being decided next week, and the results announced on 26 June. We have days to influence it. Arts Council briefings about what to expect have been depressing. ACE has already taken a worst cut than most - 30%. They deserve our thanks for handling that severe cut in a measured way. But a further 10%, as is expected, would imperil two-thirds of ACE National Portfolio Organisations. 15%, which is also entirely possible, would threaten four-fifths. Experience tells us that, once they are closed, arts organisations are very hard to bring back. The Department for Communities and Local Government has already accepted a 10% cut from the Treasury. As arts funding is not mandatory for local authorities, we are bound to see further cuts at local level on top of whatever is decided in relation to the Arts Council. Given the important role that arts subsidy plays to delivering growth what can we do to stop this?

Ruth was adviser to no less than five Secretaries of State for Culture under Labour, during what, with hindsight, could be seen as a 'golden age' for arts funding. But that suggests it is over. It is important not to feel hopeless. Ruth has worked the corridors of power during previous spending reviews. It is the officials' job to say no. But politicians have a wider vocabulary; they can also say yes. But what causes them to do so?

With most politicians it isn't a case just of making the economic case for the arts, but also the political one. Yes, arts and culture are responsible for almost 10% of GDP. Yes, the public funding which generates that is also insignificant when it comes to reducing the deficit. And arts and culture are one of a very few growing industries during the recession. We can and should make these arguments.

But research also shows that, with theatre in particular, our core audience is women aged 35-60. That's a demographic which is also important to the current coalition government. Our biggest fans are also those who the Treasurer, George Osborne wants to reach - especially in marginal seats. The question for us is: Why have we as a sector historically not managed to motivate audiences to advocate on our behalf? It is always better when our audiences do this rather than us. We should mobilise this audience to talk to their local MPs as a matter of urgency.

There are ways of doing this. Some basic rules: MPs smell a rat if every letter they receive is a template or postcard. Don't write your audience's script for them; let them write their own. Call on those who already love you - volunteers, adult learners - our 'superfans'. But there isn't much time; we must do it this week.

Ruth has seen close-up the process by which political decisions get made. It is via a series of 'whims, coincidences and cock-ups'. We must try to create some coincidences. For example, local MPs all hold constituency surgeries every Friday. This Friday 14 June is our last chance to book one. Send a superfan. Use the law of 'six degrees of separation'. Ask your board, donors, business sponsors, councillors, chief executive, philanthropists to send an email. It might get read by the right people.

There are some emerging lessons for us from this tumultuous period. The first is why it is that we still have so much work to do with our political masters. What does that say about us as cultural partners? It is complacent for us to say that arts and culture will never be as cherished as schools or hospitals. We should be coming out with better arguments, based on relationships we have forged and a campaigns base we have motivated. In fact, it's a bit late - they should be motivated already. But we have no ‘standing army’ of women, or anyone else for that matter. We should start with an audit of our own operation. All the theatres at this Thriving Theatres conference have a learning programme, relationships with schools, a senior citizens group. But this fabric of connections doesn't add up to a tapestry. What more can we do? We are running out of time. We need to show that our rhetoric about community arts is true.

During Ruth's time running Nottingham Playhouse, the theatre's claims about being part of the fabric of its community got tested. The proof came via an anecdote from a local special needs school. The school told its children that if they ever got lost in the city centre, to go into the theatre. Someone there would help. This wasn't a theatre-led initiative. It was just the culture of the theatre, school and city. For Ruth, it was one of their greatest achievements. This is the standard of community asset that we should be boasting about.

We only have today to act.

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