This is a neatened up version of my talk at Theatre 2016 in May of this year. It was part of a break-out session titled “Who should pay for the value of theatre?” The conference report should be out shortly. Check their website.
I’m delighted to be here this Friday afternoon to discuss the boring topic of social enterprise. But I’m not going to show you a bar chart or any kind of Venn diagram. Actually, I’m here to talk about the creative and ethical challenges that not only led me down the path of social enterprise but also the dilemmas it poses.
The triple bottom-line is about meeting all the demands of a social business – achieving returns financially, socially and in our case artistically. I’m going to talk about why I thought this would be a good idea and what I found out.
So as no presentation is complete without some background, this is it. Young at Art was set up in Belfast in 1998 with the express purpose of running an international multi-artform festival for children and young people. It had aspirations for international excellence (and who doesn’t), for access and participation and for showcasing.
At the point that it was set up there were very few festivals in the UK and Ireland catering for children and young people; the majority of performance work for young audiences was presented for or toured to schools. Northern Ireland had virtually no history of making theatre for young audiences bar one company, Replay Theatre Company which had been running since 1989. Most children’s experience of live theatre (and the experience of their parents and even their grandparents) was pantomime – hard to imagine given what a big percentage of audiences families have become.
There were other particularities to setting up an international arts festival in Belfast. Huge areas of the city were what is known as “contested” spaces, the city centre was deserted at night and in particular people from outside the city did not see it as a place they felt safe to visit. Audience development was less about ticketing and more about persuading people of their security to come out.
Into this came an international two-week festival which in its first year showed work from 3 continents, built an installation in a derelict house, suspended a junk orchestra from the walkways of a major concert hall, and more or less sold out 8,000 tickets. Fabulous! A new generation of hungry parents and children were born and this seemed like the perfect celebration of new found peace.
What the founders of Young at Art realised quite quickly was that, despite a healthy pool of artistic talent, no-one was making work that matched with the inspiration of the international work and and as the community of people interested in making work for children was very very small, there was little sign of that changing. So Young at Art started to commission artists to make the work it wanted to see. Now, today when you look at LIFT or Manchester International Festival or many others, the idea of the festival commission is more common place but then it was more unusual.
And credit to the founders, they were right. Of the first three stage productions they commissioned, two led to the establishment of theatre companies that still operate – Cahoots NI and Monkeyshine. Other commissions led to artists changing direction in their work, developing careers as standup comedians, discovering new partners. It was in general a positive – there was work for a growing audience, showcasing within the festival rather than perpetual import and the community of artists who wanted to make work for children was growing.
For me festivals are a bit like cake shops – they are very front-facing, with grand things put out there on display. They are a kind of shop window to see an array of creations side by side. So when Young at Art began commissioning they had in essence become a baker – what you saw on display was only part of the work. This too inevitably became problematic. It wasn’t what we were set up to do and it stretched the tiny company too far.
There is never any one reason for companies to do what they do. It’s almost always a distillation of multiple needs, opportunities and barriers. By 2003 when I joined, it was clear the company had insufficient funding and staff to continue commissioning, particularly as many of the artists were coming from a much earlier career stage and needed more support. I was rearranging the festival to focus on families and not schools. I was trying to find work for the very young and also work that was accessible to non-arts attenders.
And not so much a commission as an evolution of ideas, in 2005 we made Baby Rave – a one-off high volume accessible event for 0 – 4 year olds that just buzzed. It reached new audiences, it attracted attention. People loved it and other festivals wanted it. Within 2 years, we had presented it all over the UK and Ireland. We took it to the Adelaide Fringe. We sold T-shirts. People sent us letters to say what a life affirming experience it had been. And in terms of audience development, we were starting our audiences at 5 days old. Given that they stop at 14, this is probably the greatest possible audience lifespan we could achieve.
But again it was problematic – we weren’t set up to tour this to other festivals. We still didn’t have enough local artists to showcase in the festival. When we did commission, we didn’t have the means to extend the life of the work. We also saw that we by that stage had a small lean company infrastructure that might find selling shows like this easier than an individual artist or small unfunded company.
It is sometimes easy to think we all know what we’re talking about and that our experiences are, broadly, the same. Standing at this conference today, it’s worth saying that, while times have been tough for everyone in the arts sector and theatre as a whole, Northern Ireland has suffered from a singular failure to invest in its arts and cultural sector. Per capita spend on the arts in Northern Ireland was less than £7 at the time of the Good Friday Agreement. Despite the challenges of working in a post-conflict society and economy with some of highest rates of suicide and disability in these islands, where one in four children live in poverty, the boom years of millennial and New Labour investment never really happened. Per capita spend on the arts today is pretty much the same as in 1998. Running an arts organisation in these difficult times made us feel a moral obligation to try to find an alternative way to ensure artists could be paid, work could be made and children could be reached. We, as often overworked and underpaid staff were the lucky ones. We had salaries.
It would be nice to say we set it up and off we went but actually what I did in 2008 was go and find out what a social enterprise was in order to separate Baby Rave from the festival. And we quickly came up with some conclusions:
- That we could set up an agency and it could survive if it sold Baby Rave and other things – other shows
- That this might resolve some of the challenges we could see in our sector – artists’ poverty, insufficient work available for touring, challenges to programmers to find work
- That this might function without creating a fundraising target
We put together a business case.
We thought about risk and full cost recovery.
We talked about quality – a lot!
We talked about quality again.
We canvassed opinion.
We got creative industries seed funding to experiment over eighteen months from 2010 and then we incorporated the company as a commercial subsidiary in 2012. Very quickly from 2010 we saw that the corporate sector (shopping centres, banks, etc) had money for workshops, family events. But. They didn’t want productions. We also saw that venues and local authorities (who ran arts centres) wanted the shows and exhibitions we had to offer but they were in budget freefall (in part because of the recession but also in part because their budgets were built on an expectation of subsidised product). We also realised that what we did as a company was in itself an asset. We sold ourselves as family event organisers.
Some six years on, from the start of this journey, these are the dilemmas we face:
If you set out to generate a profit from selling creative work like this, it will probably be a disappointment. The agency contributes about 20% of Young at Art’s combined turnover but it does not replace the development funding needed to make the work that defines us and our intentions. We all exist in a market of sorts but existing in a fully commercial realm pushes you towards what the market wants and that’s not always a creative place to be.
Your brand, and your resources are exposed through these kinds of ventures in ways you didn’t expect. The peaks and troughs of the year are different, the turnarounds are different and how you represent yourselves to the world becomes a much more complicated discussion.
The economic reality is that the funding problems driving us towards this model of operating also fund the potential market – selling work at full cost recovery (which is what you have to do) is not affordable to many venues, arts centres and festivals. It became clear to us that until the market pays the actual cost, a fully viable social enterprise model cannot happen. As it stands, most of the public sector partners we work with start with the budget they have available rather than ask how much something will cost to deliver. The expectation of subsidised work is so prevalent a commercial model will always look over-budget when it’s not.
The logical next thought is to cut your costs but the person MOST likely to lose out is the artist.
Where does that leave you if you started doing this to support artists? (Either that or the parent charity ends up subsidising the commercial company). At the time we were exploring this in 2010, the average income of an artist in Northern Ireland was less than £7,000 a year and it has continued to fall. In the last two years I have seen talented experienced artists reaching breaking point with stress and depression, unable to pay their rent, going to food banks, leaving the industry. Let’s not begin to talk about reminding themselves they are creative imaginative individuals. So what we were doing was in part about keeping our artistic community alive and working so that we continued to have artists to work with and draw on in the future.
With relatively few exceptions, this model does not fit the development of new work. In Young at Art, we separated the support and development of artists as the business of the charity and the touring of the finished piece as the agency’s responsibility with no guarantee it would happen. But even with that we still faced challenges – putting too much hope and expectation onto a new piece of work because your agency needed something new to sell, or saying no to an artist when you didn’t feel their work was right to promote at that time or simply wasn’t up to scratch. I will always be proud of what we produced, work like Katie’s Birthday Party (appearing in Birmingham, Edinburgh and Bath this summer by the way) by Mary-Frances Doherty, a piece about the fragileness of being the kid moving to a new school; Cardboard Cities by Caragh O’Donnell and Sinead Breathnach-Cashell, working with children and architects, an interactive exhibition in which the city is rebuilt every day, and of course Baby Rave which continues to tour and appeared on Broadway last year.
Without us stepping in, these things would either never have happened or they would have disappeared after a brief appearance and never reached a wider audience. But we also recognised the pressure it put on us to manage expectations of what we could realistically achieve for and with an artist.
In my title, I said this was about how a cake shop began milling flour. What I meant was, we set out to address a gap in the artistic landscape (for us and others) and ended up doing art installations at an agricultural show or corporate launches. We thought we were in one line of work and ended up in another.
Much richer and more deeply ethically driven, we started out with an intention to make a rich landscape through a festival and ending up going further and further back in the creative process from presenting, to commissioning and touring, to trying to get artists started in their practice. To get what we wanted we had to get to the basics, the ingredients – the flour for the cakes.
When you separate your functions, you can see them more clearly. It becomes easier to say this is or is not relevant to our intentions and this is what needs to happen. I’m not saying I didn’t know how to put a budget together before but trying to carve out costs in a different mindset helps you understand invisible costs (extra hours of admin on a project, prep time for workshops, how much time you spend on supervision). Cost, price and value are different things.
Replacing your core business with something else can have unexpected effects – audiences, sponsorship, online presence, media coverage have all gone up because we are present in more places and reaching further than our meagre festival budget could afford. We all know that some projects or parts of our work come together easily and some suck you in. Understanding that this part of our work was at a slight remove (but not too much) helped us call time when something was taking too long.
The test of it all is – if it doesn’t do what you need, are you prepared to shut it down? Right now it’s good but having no funders means it’s much easier to call time on something that’s no longer fit for purpose.
And so is it worth it? Only if you remember why you’re doing it.