Arts: Poor show, great publicity

It's a fact: getting funding for arts is as much an art as the art itself. And no civic marketing board knows it better than Birmingham's. On Friday the city goes into overdrive. To what end? They call it `Artsfest'. By Phil Johnson
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When it comes to assessing the current state of creativity in the arts, you could argue that it's not the practitioners who are the main movers and shakers any more, but the administrators. The cart, you feel, is not just leading the horse - it's so far ahead that it is bordering on farce. In Hollywood films, most of the real creativity routinely goes into the accounting and the product placements. In pop, the music of the Spice Girls, Boyzone or Billie might suck, but the acts are masterpieces of high-concept marketing, designed to perfection. At art galleries and theatres, you often get the feeling that if only the organisations had spent as much time on the show as they had on their lottery bids, then everything would be so much better.

For the arts in Britain, the lottery of The Lottery has changed everything, and perhaps it won't be long before a night at the opera begins with the curtains parting to reveal a display of Arts Council funding applications. And let's face it, it could hardly be less compelling than some of the stuff that is put on, as organisations devote more and more of their hard- pressed resources to the business of attempting to secure, well, more and more resources. It's beginning to look as if arts events in every shape and form - from the ubiquitous festivals that have replaced refuse- collection as a prime civic duty, to the "premieres" hosted by the major London concert halls - owe at least as much to the Byzantine complexities governing their funding as they do to the creative impulses of the artists involved.

Like the finance required by independent films, which have to take a little here and a little there (and in return accept a C-list American actor for a Scottish costume drama in order to appeal to cable viewers in Cleveland, Ohio), live arts events are increasingly put together from multiple sources of funding. We end up with shows whose frantic chase for the money results in a kind of bland "official" culture reflecting nothing so much as the presumed preferences of the various funding bodies. It may not be as slavishly obedient to the state as Stalin's tractor-factory musicals, but it reflects the governing ideology all the same. And at least in Stalin's Russia everyone understood the dominant ideology. These days, nobody has a clue. And as any Marxist cultural critic could tell you (if you could find one), this proves that arts funding by the state is doing exactly what it's designed to do.

But as marketing becomes the biggest growth area in the arts, the men in suits are starting to make the kind of creative strokes that used to be the prerogative of shaven-headed artistic directors dressed all in black. The latest initiative from the city of Birmingham's Arts Marketing Board, for example, is a stunt of truly Wagnerian proportions. This weekend, nearly all of the arts organisations in Birmingham and the West Midlands are combining to present "Artsfest", a street festival of taster performances and information displays that will occupy the city centre for three days. Modelled after Amsterdam's "Uitmarket", an annual festival designed to promote the city's coming season of arts attractions, it's as radical an intervention into local culture as you could wish for, especially given that the arts in Holland are subsidised at a level far above anything here. And while Birmingham might not seem like the most obvious English equivalent to Amsterdam, the city's initiative remains a very bold move.

If all goes according to plan this weekend, and the citizens actually turn up, the tessellated pavement of Centenary Square bordering Symphony Hall and the Birmingham Rep will be thronging with locals attending taster performances of Romeo and Juliet from the Royal Ballet, Gershwin by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (under the direction of new star Thomas Ades), and extracts of Mozart and Tchaikovsky by the post-Simon Rattle CBSO. There's bhangra, bop and blues all over the place, as well as interactive art and craft workshops in Brindley Place, a third outdoor stage at Chamberlain Square, and lots and lots of dance.

Reflecting the cart-leads-horse effect, "Artsfest" is funded partly by the Arts Council's "New Audiences" scheme, a fresh source of subsidy which is being repeated all over the country (if you find a mime troupe blocking the aisle in your local supermarket, blame New Audiences).

Paul Caines, the Chief Executive of Birmingham Arts Marketing, says: "the overall budget for Artsfest is in the region of pounds 200,000, almost all of which is being spent on the actual weekend, where the biggest cost is stage management. On our own, we wouldn't be able to meet the costs, but there's money from the New Audiences fund - which came along well after the event was being organised - as well as sponsorship from Allied Domecq, the Evening Mail, and a range of smaller sponsors."

According to Caines, this new creativity in arts marketing began as a response to an earlier failure by the men in suits. "As arts organisations had their budgets frozen or cut, they increasingly fell back on using direct mail," he says. "While that's a very good way of addressing existing audiences, it's not so good at reaching new people, so now we're positioning the arts in a different way." In other words, the cart is increasingly pulling the horse, though Caines's view is couched in classic marketing language. "The marketing agenda does have an impact on new work, but all we're doing is contributing to the overall process," he says. "Arts organisations don't see marketing as only an end-activity any more; they see it as an important part of building in the audience's needs and responses at the earlier stages. And that can only be a good thing."

Whether Artsfest will succeed remains to be seen - the weather may be decisive. But whatever happens, it remains a genuinely populist and risk- taking move of the sort you're increasingly unlikely to see, where the real creativity is reserved for the latest lottery application, or on drumming up funds for a new appointment - in marketing.

Artsfest, Birmingham city centre, from 8pm, Friday 25 to late on Sunday 27, with over 200 events, all free. 0121 622 1234 for details