It’s not our job to pay for the Royal Academy’s new Ai Weiwei exhibition

A major arts venue shouldn’t be relying on crowd-funding

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The Independent Online

One is used to high prices for arts events. One can even stomach (almost) the dreaded booking fees. But now there is a novel twist on getting our money — have us pay towards the cost of staging the event itself.

The latest institution, and a pretty august one at that, to decide that it is not its job but the punters’ job to pay for one of its events, is the Royal Academy. It’s not exactly short of money. It’s lucrative Friends organisation, which as a long-standing Friend I am happy to pay, brings in a huge sum. And it seems to be able to afford various expensive renovations and purchases of new buildings. But when it comes to its primary purpose of putting on an exhibition, it seems to have decided that we can pay for that.

The Royal Academy wants to bring a the monumental, site-specific installation of trees by Ai Weiwei as part of a major exhibition of the artist’s work this autumn. It will show eight trees in its courtyard and will have to bring them from China. The plans will cost £100,000, which the RA is hoping to raise through Kickstarter, offering supporters rewards which include limited edition prints, access to exclusive online content and private tours. The Royal Academy’s artistic director Tim Marlow says that this “would allow people across the world to show their support for an artist probably best known for the wrong reasons.”

No, hang on, Tim. I can show my support for the brave and brilliant Ai Weiwei by coming to see his work. It’s little short of emotional blackmail to suggest that I ought to pay towards the installation to show my support. That strikes me as utterly disingenuous. Having ‘supporters’ pay may or may not help Ai Weiwei; it certainly helps the Royal Academy. Mr Marlow adds ominously that if the Kickstarter campaign succeeds, he could see the fundraising method being used again. I’ll take that as a yes. No doubt it will be used again. And again and again.

It’s as disconcerting as those wretched “restoration levies” that we have to pay at West End theatres to help those hard-pressed billionaire theatre owners do up the buildings. And clearly the doing up of theatres is a lifelong endeavour as the levies never seems to go away. The definition of what the public has to pay for when it comes to an arts event seems to be eternally expanding. Now we are expected to help the Royal Academy with their finances too, and pay not just to see the exhibition, but to put it on in the first place.

Crowd-funding is increasingly in vogue. And, let’s face it, it is a sexy-sounding word. It evokes such positive virtues: inclusivity, community, involvement, culture lovers pulling together for the sake of culture.

But how easily and insidiously it can be exploited by big institutions to lessen their own funding and fund-raising duties, and simply hand them over to the public. 



The Halle orchestra has found a way to attract new audiences

I’m delighted to see that the Halle orchestra in Manchester is to stage a classical concert in September, which aims to encourage new young audiences by allowing people to pay what they like. The idea isn’t actually a new one. Some years ago I encouraged theatres to have Pay What You Can evenings every Monday. Some high profile names signed up for a while, including the West End musical We Will Rock You. Other venues have mounted similar initiatives of their own over the years. And in the nineties, Pay What You Can evenings were suggested by Labour’s then shadow arts spokesman. Perhaps one or more of the candidates for the Party leadership could inject some life into the current campaign, and indeed a mention of the arts, by resurrecting the idea.



Stop getting hung-up on dressing down

The Halle’s plans for their special evening contain other good ideas including screens which will display background information on the piece being performed. But one supposedly ‘down with the kids’ idea leaves me cold. The orchestra is to be banned from wearing tails for the concert. Why is it always assumed that posh dress is off-putting to new, young audiences, or indeed that they don’t like dressing up themselves? The success of Secret Cinema, which has run evening dress screenings for its predominantly young audience, would suggest otherwise. There’s nothing wrong w

ith a touch of grandeur and a sense of occasion.