Art First, Profit Second

by Dan Hutton

in National Conference

Post image for Art First, Profit Second

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Survive | Thrive} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.) 

Financial models supporting the creation and dissemination of art should not try to emulate those of the business world. In private industry, laws ensure that the amassing of profit is the ultimate purpose, safeguarding shareholders and ensuring ‘growth’. Often, theatrical institutions run the risk of confusing economic worth with cultural worth, and in an increasingly neoliberal society, those creating art should be doing all they can do combat cynical and greedy profiteering found elsewhere in our lives. As well as countering prevailing ideology in the content of their theatre, artists should also do all they can to find alternative economies within which to work.

At first, the wholesale ditching of ‘sensible’, ‘sound’, ‘realistic’ economic practices seem like a terrifying and risky strategy, and goes against what our conditioned capitalist brains are supposed to believe. Theatres and companies need, we are told, to have rigid and unbreakable business plans which capitalize on success and reject failure. Maria Miller, previously Minister for Culture in the UK as part of David Cameron’s Tory­led government, suggested in 2013 that “When times are tough and money is tight, our focus must be on culture’s economic impact.”

This is an ideology which must be fought.

For millennia, artists have shunned, questioned and critiqued existing paradigms of economic, political and philosophical thought. The greatest artists can, to varying extents, be described as anarchists in the way they challenged prevailing dogmas and held authority to account. We ­as artists, makers, curators, writers and programmers ­are used to interrogating systems of thought as if it’s our lifeblood ­but often, it feels we put our money where our mouth is rather too infrequently.

Importantly, the context of theatre says as much about the world as its content. What good is a play offering a searing indictment of consumer capitalism when it is placed on a West End stage where tickets cost upwards of £30? Why make a piece of theatre which discusses the failures of current environmental policy if the energy consumption of the stage­lights is not somehow neutralized? It is just not good enough to make work which critiques the world around us; if it’s to have any impact, the structures within which it exists have to challenge that order too.

All this, of course, is a challenge, and I don’t pretend for a moment that it’s easy. I don’t even have any answers. I can only suggest that we reappropriate the meaning of ‘thriving’ in the neoliberal era. To businessmen, to politicians and to economists, ‘thriving’ means “financially successful”, where “profit” is king and “art” comes second. As a community of artists, theatre­makers, producers, writers, designers, performers and critics, however, we must strive to find a new meaning for ‘thriving’ which isn’t based onmoney and commerce, but which instead describes a tenacity of spirit and a deeply­held and passionate desire to break down the structures and ideas of late capitalism which have so held our attention over the past few decades in a way which puts theatre and audiences first.

Go on. I dare you.

Dan is a freelance critic, theatre­maker and co­director of Barrel Organ Theatre. He won the Howard Hobson Award for Theatre Criticism at NSDF in 2010, 2011 and 2013, and in 2013 was the runner­up for the Edinburgh Fringe Allen Wright Award for Arts Journalism. He is the theatre columnist for Litro Magazine and a contributor to Exeunt and A Younger Theatre. Dan is also a theatre director, with production credits at Warwick Arts Centre, Barons Court Theatre and mac Birmingham.