Why do people turn to the arts?

By Martin Vogel

The Angel of the North, Gateshead

Arts companies seem to be developing a healthy interest in the intrinsic benefits of the arts, if this week’s annual conference of the Arts Marketing Association is a guide. This seems slightly counter-intuitive. At a time when many companies are feeling the loss of public funding, you might expect the arts to intensify their focus on the public policy objectives which secure grants – such as their economic impact. Possibly, the more challenging financial environment is freeing the sector to think outside the box.

I attended the conference, in Gateshead, to facilitate a seminar about how arts companies might use new media to raise their game (see previous post). My premise was that the websites of many arts companies are strangely uninspiring for organisations whose purpose is to engage the public in creative endeavour. In my view, the arts sector has yet to comprehend the explosion in creativity that digital technology and the internet have facilitated. So it is largely missing the opportunity to address audiences and involve them as creative individuals in their own right.

My suggestion was that arts companies should reflect on their core purpose and make sure that their internet strategy was imbued with its ethos.  This pre-occupation with remembering what the arts are supposed to be about is one I heard articulated repeatedly around the conference.

Who better to deliver the message than the impressario of the biggest event of street theatre London has witnessed?  Helen Marriage, from Artichoke, was part of the team that brought The Sultan’s Elephant to the capital two years ago.  Hundreds of thousands of people witnessed this spectacle, staged over four days on the streets of the West End.  Helen showed pictures which were testimony to the emotional chord it struck with audiences.  Most had little idea what to expect since the event was promoted obliquely to maintain a sense of mystery.  I was there, carrying my then three-year-old in my arms, and can remember well the sense of awe.  This was occasioned not just by the spectacle of a huge elephant and an amazingly life-like giant puppet girl lumbering through Regent Street, but also the sheer energy and warm-heartedness of the crowd coming together.

The Sultan’s Elephant, London, May 2006

Artichoke like to stage events which are free to attend.  Not having to market a financial transaction, again counter-intuitively, seems to free them to promote the essential artistic experience: the magic, the emotion, the spectacle.

The need to return to these kind of values was the message from Gerri Morris, a consultant to arts companies with her company Morris Hargreaves McIntyre.  Like me, she drew attention to the rise of the creative consumer.  But she went much further, pointing out audiences’ inconvenient refusal to conform to the arts marketing models devised for the pre-television age that are still in use.  These include the subscription scheme and the assumption that people will grow into high culture.  She described contemporary audiences as fickle, promiscuous and discerning, less respectful of the boundaries between high and low culture.  Instead of listening to them, and providing them with resonant, meaningful experiences, arts companies were treating them to a “cascade of disdain” from the artistic director down to the box office.

This provided a useful prism through which to interpret a new segmentation of the English population from the Arts Council.  This showed that only nine per cent of the population are highly engaged in the arts.  This nine per cent comprises two groups – described as urban arts eclectics and traditional culture vultures, both highly affluent.  The Arts Council’s Catherine Bunting presented a slide which showed that affluence and engagement with the arts correlate very closely – raising questions about the equity of public funding for the arts.

Now this seemed to be a more intuitive insight but, on reflection, it doesn’t quite stack up.  Might the reported low levels of engagement be a function of the models of programming and promotion favoured by the sector rather than an inherent disinclination to enjoy artistic enterprise among large sections of the population.  As The Sultan’s Elephant demonstrated, where there’s a motivation, it’s possible to mobilise engagement en masse.

During my seminar, participants spoke of their difficulty encouraging people who were discussing arts events on blogs and on sites like Facebook to do the same on the websites of the arts companies that programme the events.  Phil Blight, a trustee with Nofit State Circus,reflected that perhaps those who shared this concern were missing the point and should take their company to where the discussion was spontaneously happening.  What applies online applies in the real world, and it’s telling that this insight comes from a circus – an artistic enterprise which pitches up in the community.

The Sultan’s Elephant had something of the quality of a circus.  It came to us, and connected with us in a visceral way.  As a review in The Guardian put it at the time:

“This is a show that disrupts the spectacle of everyday life and transforms the city from an impersonal place of work and business into a place of play and community. It does something very simple and important: it makes you feel incredibly happy and it gives you permission to let your imagination take flight. It turns us all into beautiful dreamers with silly grins on our faces.”

To achieve this is difficult enough (The Sultan’s Elephant was the product of unimaginable logistics). Perhaps we shouldn’t ask any more of the arts.