There was a lot of talk at Shift Happens earlier this month about innovation and making mistakes, with soundbites such as “we learn more from our mistakes than our successes” flying around. Attractive though the rhetoric sounds, I wonder if it stands up to scrutiny. For a start, it ignores the question of funding: how can you justify asking for (more) money if your previous project flopped?
Failure is an expensive luxury. If you lose the confidence of funders, audience or staff – or, worse yet, all three – the way forward is less clear. NT Live! can run in the hope of widening audiences and eventually breaking even, because the National Theatre receives millions of pounds from Arts Council England annually, has an ongoing sponsorship deal with Travelex, received additional support from Nesta, and can absorb the loss, even though each broadcast costs around £150,000. For most artists and arts organisations, though, no matter how fantastic an idea is, a financial failure makes it harder to convince anyone to fund your next project – whether that’s Ace, sponsors or philanthropists. However eager the audience may be to experience a risky, exciting, innovative project, it has to get off the ground first.
Even those with the most genuine and generous philanthropic leanings might find their patience and pockets tested by failure. And, in the current economic climate, it feels somewhat irresponsible to be encouraging people to make mistakes, however useful the lessons might be. The risks that pay off may be worthwhile, but the risks that don’t could end careers. I’m not saying that this is a good thing, but it is a fact. The problem, in part, is the tick-box mentality associated with public funding, which requires you to know the outcomes of your project before you start.
Depressingly, this is borne out by a survey conducted by ArtsProfessional magazine and released last week, assessing the financial outlook for the sector. More than 500 people working across the arts and cultural sector responded, with around one in five self-identifying as the leader of an arts organisation. The survey revealed that 41% of respondents will be programming more “popular” work, and 37% will be reducing the amount of “challenging” work that they commission.
Risk in the arts is usually a good thing. Risky means creative, edgy or innovative. Can an artist who does not take risks be interesting? Maybe not, but this is at odds with the demands of public funders. Creative risk is good, but financial risk is bad. Let’s hope that risk-aversion is not contagious, and that those who are not planning to reduce the amount of challenging work they programme hold their nerve. Otherwise, audiences could have a dull few years ahead.
This article first appeared on the Guardian theatre blog.