Arts cuts: Time to stage a revolution

The coming cuts mean that arts institutions need to start thinking more about audiences and less about themselves, says Sir Nicholas Kenyon, the head of London's Barbican Centre

Wednesday 22 September 2010 00:00

As the arts brace themselves for the inevitable funding cuts of the autumn – and however brilliantly their powerful case is argued, however stunning the successes of the last decade, there can be no doubt that radical change will come – what are the principles that should guide our work in the future? Here is just one: put the audience first, and institutions second. Arts audiences are changing radically (in fact audiences hardly categorise themselves as "arts" any more) and they have a huge and sophisticated appetite both for innovation, for quality and for participation.

Some of the most striking experimental successes of recent months have involved audiences in a radically new way. They have challenged the audience to spend longer, dig deeper. The Brighton Festival offered immersive Brian Eno artworks bringing light, music and architecture together that drew crowds prepared to spend hours getting into the rhythm of that unique mix. The Barbican, among many experiments this year inside and outside the Centre, went off-site with the Create festival, to a disused office block in Bethnal Green for You Me Bum Bum Train, winner of the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust award, a fantastic show that involved some 200 volunteer performers but only one audience member at a time – a literally unique encounter. Also off-site, English National Opera adventurously brought the walk-through experience to opera with a Docklands extravaganza staged by Punchdrunk, which led the audience through a maze of self-guided scenes in a new opera, The Duchess of Malfi. Choreographer Michael Clark has been working at Tate Modern. Earlier in the season, the six-hour extravaganza Roman Tragedies, bringing together three Shakespeare plays in Dutch, did happen in a theatre in the Barbican, but that was the only conventional aspect, since the audience came on stage, mingled with the actors, bought drinks, surfed the internet and watched the action on screens as well as in the auditorium, a free-flowing event that accumulated enormous power. There are countless other examples.

Technology has made a lot of this possible: big screens have enabled events from Glastonbury to BBC Proms in the Park to work for huge audiences; the Met Opera and the National Theatre go far beyond their own venues; and internet streaming is beginning to make great events accessible to far wider audiences. The received idea that technology would make us close in on ourselves, access all our music one-to-one through headphones, and use the internet to avoid communicating has been proved misconceived. Instead, we use Facebook to communicate with many more people than we were ever able to keep in touch with before, Twitter to react instantly to share experiences, and the internet to hook into the pull of live events. Rather than reducing communality and interaction, technology has powerfully aided it.

But it needs navigation. We know there is a heap of dross and worse out there, and the role of the artistic director and programmer in the future will involve a new approach to the constant mission of organising, selecting and mediating the very best quality to audiences. One historic achievement of the BBC has been to act as a "trusted guide" to the best of what is available by bringing it to their broadcast networks. Now in a very different world where we are not constrained by broadcast networks, the same function of a reliable guide will be all the more necessary for audiences, and arts organisations should be collaborating with the BBC and other technology providers (in its nascent Project Canvas) to create the richest possible offer for all.

The thirst for participation rather than passive observation, and for using technology in the process, is especially critical for a younger audience: hence the increasing focus of cutting-edge arts venues like the Roundhouse in north London and Sage Gateshead on activities which are generated by young people. In the past we justifiably trained the young to be the audiences of the future, and sent specialist performing talent off to be trained in high-end conservatoires; now we want them all to be the creators of the future, and to offer the widest opportunities.

At the Barbican we are developing a range of partnerships, especially with the thriving areas of east London, which enable us to offer a range of interactions with performers of the highest quality to a new generation. When Wynton Marsalis and his acclaimed Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra arrived in the summer for the first of their residencies at the Barbican, they didn't only perform sell-out shows at the Centre, they went to the Hackney Empire, Shoreditch Town Hall, Victoria Park, and the players worked with a new young people's ensemble, the East London Creative Jazz Orchestra – which will now work constantly from this beginning to develop their skills until Marsalis is back here in 2012. The Barbican Young Orchestra of 9+ year-olds has been working with the president of the LSO and one of the world's leading conductors, Sir Colin Davis. Pied Piper brought talented young dancers on to the main theatre stage. The reaction of those young performers to having their sights raised that high has been inspiring.

One of the biggest lessons of the past decade is that people's priorities have radically changed. At the end of the last decade, you still sensed a thirst for more things, more to own, more glamorous goods. Now what people want is great experiences, moments that take them out of themselves and offer a new perspective on life, from the arts and beyond, to great food or a party. Hence the exponential growth of live festivals, big events, flashmob gatherings. And the arts, responding, has enabled the audience to participate as never before. Don't for a moment undervalue listening and watching: no-one who has silently shared the experience of a great Mahler or Beethoven symphony at the Proms, or a Shakespeare tragedy at the RSC could doubt that it is a real form of participation in the arts; but the understanding of the challenge (and terror) of doing it makes that participation all the more real.

So what should be the role of the arts institutions at a time of challenge? It is not to preserve themselves from change, but to be as flexible and collaborative as possible in guiding audiences to this whole range of new experiences. Our two-way partnership with Theatre Royal Stratford East has enlivened both our programmes and broadened both our audiences: the Barbican's when the Theatre Royal's hit show The Harder They Come brought a whole new crowd to the City; and Theatre Royal's this summer when John Adams's earthquake music-theatre piece I Was Looking at the Ceiling... was revived with a brilliant new young cast in Stratford. They were true interactions which are a pointer to the future. Create, the wholly collaborative east London festival now running each summer, will enable the area to deliver a home-made but world-class cultural engagement around the 2012 Olympics.

There is no arguing that times will soon be harder, and that any government truly concerned for the quality of life and the health of its citizens should work with us to damage the arts as little as possible. But there is a lot we can do through partnerships and collaboration. Institutions second, audiences first: in the end we don't matter; they do.

Sir Nicholas Kenyon is managing director of the Barbican Centre and was director of the BBC Proms between 1996 and 2007

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