Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Mark Ravenhill on Rich People

Mark Ravenhill, posting on why "Rich Donors and Diversity Don't Mix" on the Guardian blog, reinforces for me why this quixotic quest for a new theatre model free, as much as possible, from government and corporate grants is desirable. He writes about being interviewed for a position as artistic director for a prominent London theatre:

One question came as a total surprise, given that we were talking about the future of an organisation that has always prided itself on its radical past. "How well," I was asked, "do you get on with very rich people? Getting on with rich individuals will be an important part of the job." Up until then, I had answered every question, however lamely. But now I was speechless. My interviewer pressed me: "I ask because we're reliant on donations from wealthy individuals to continue our work." More silence from me until I finally cracked a lame joke. "I always enjoy a flirtation with a rich old widow," I said and mumbled a paraphrase of John Lennon's "and you in the posh seats rattle your jewellery" line. My inability to successfully field this one felt like the killer blow to my application, and I staggered from the room, utterly defeated.

Looking back, I realise how naive I was not to prepare some thoughts. After all, this organisation, like every other arts organisation today, has an office dedicated to raising money from charitable trusts, large businesses and wealthy individuals. Why appoint someone who isn't keen to meet the rich and solicit money from them?

In today's climate, if you're looking to appoint someone to lead an arts organisation, you will be looking for a candidate who could get you a big tick in the all-important "diversity" box; everyone is agreed that we mustn't keep drawing on the same circle of Oxbridge-educated white men. But it would also have to be someone whose address book was stuffed with friends and contacts who have inherited large fortunes or made a killing in the City, and are now ready to show some largesse towards the arts. It's a circle that is pretty near impossible to square.

I wish we in the arts didn't have to take a penny from wealthy individuals. Having to dance around the small group of wealthy people - individually good, kind people - who donate their money to the arts gradually erodes the energy and focus of cultural organisations. As fundraising dinners and gala evenings increasingly fill the calendars of theatres, opera houses and galleries, they have less time for the very activity for which they exist: making and delivering art to people of all social backgrounds. Of course, I'd be surprised if there is an artistic director in Britain who consciously weighs up decisions in the light of the opinions of a circle of wealthy donors. But constantly spending time with them, and not with a more representative sample of your audience, is bound to skew your judgment eventually.

Dudley Cocke, in "Arts in a Democracy," said something similar about American theatre: "With most (80 percent) of its audience drawn from the top 15 percent of the income scale, the assembled spectators for the typical not-for-profit professional theater production don’t look like any community in the U.S., except, perhaps, a gated one. From such a narrow social base, great democratic art will never rise."

Mike Daisey says something similar in "How the Arts Failed America," in the section of his performance that discusses whether the wealthy wouldn't be turned off by sharing "their" theatre with poor people, or people of different colors. Again it was Dudley Cocke who provided the concrete example, which I quoted here.

I think the theatre audience should reflect our country, and not be solely a playground for the educated rich. But when they're the ones who pay the fiddler, it is hard not to create tunes they'd like on their iPod. It's not that it is impossible to maintain one's independence -- I'd just like to try to imagine a theatre model that doesn't rely to such a large extent on the wealthy, who, as Ravenhill notes, are nice people. I'm not one of those who thinks that money equals evil. As Shaw once said, I have no problem with money -- I think everybody ought to have some...

Even if we could cut down by 10% our reliance on the government and the wealthy, we'd be better off.

1 comment:

John said...

Ravenhill's a fucking genius and has been round and round in his relatively short life. He's a good man to listen to.