Friday, January 26, 2007

Three things to feel bothered about

A curious sensation to come back from a few days out of the loop and find all manner of unexpected ghastliness piled up in the in-tray. Here are three things that deserve your attention, if they don't already have it.

1. If you're reading this blog on purpose -- and who knows?, perhaps you are -- you probably already know about the big talking point in British theatre this last week: namely, the sudden emergence of the threat of imminent closure to Battersea Arts Centre. Reviewing its commitments in the light of what they say is an unmanageable shortfall, Wandsworth Council, which administers the borough in which BAC is situated, is proposing completely cutting its funding to the venue, and at the same time starting to charge commercial rent (instead of the peppercorn rent previously levied) and maintenance costs. Altogether this amounts to BAC taking a hit of around £370,000 -- around a third of its current budget. The venue already operates close to the edge and would not be able to absorb such a massive hike in its outgoings. What this all adds up to is BAC facing having to shut down from April.

The chorus of shocked and baffled anger that has greeted the news among theatre professionals in London and further afield -- and, gratifyingly, among audiences and Wandsworth residents too -- is in itself at least heartening, though it may in a way be almost counterproductive. The council's beef is that, while they are broadly in favour of BAC, they now see it as being a regional and national player rather than simply a local one -- which is quite accurate -- and therefore feel that as a funding body with a specifically local remit they have no business being required to support it to the degree that they currently do. It's rather a blinkered view even on its own terms, given the amount of money and visitors and prestige that BAC conducts into the borough; it's also to some degree inconsistent with the facts, which are that BAC makes an exceptionally strong offering to local residents (especially by comparison with other similar scale venues elsewhere) -- stronger I think since David Jubb took up the directorship (he being mindful, I suspect, of the seeds of just this conflict, which were certainly apparent three years ago); and furthermore that the proportion of local residents in its day-to-day audience is also unusually strong. Nonetheless, I dare say this nationwide outcry only bolsters Wandsworth's reluctance to pick up so much of the tab out of its local shop for local people coffers.

For myself, there is -- not a difficulty, exactly, but a tremor of disturbance here, in that I cannot claim to be a front-and-centre fan of BAC; quite the reverse, in some ways. Not that I dispute for a second the summary of the venue's influence and significance from which Lyn Gardner launches her Guardian blog entry on the topic. In fact really it's because of that position that I worry about BAC: its influence is not necessarily disproportionate to its turnover of creative material but I think there are huge problems with the view it takes on how it can best support artists, and the models and languages that it favours have been taken up in many other places, indeed have come to define the working culture to a surprising extent, with many other venues and producers and funding bodies seeking to emulate what they see as an impressive series of successes. For some artists, certainly, their relationship with BAC is a blissfully happy marriage; for many others there are real difficulties. My perspective was certainly changed substantially by my experience of running a much smaller venue that, to a degree, fed emerging artists quite frequently into the BAC machine. It's interesting to read my old pal Mervyn Millar's description of how "BAC takes artists who are lost and confused artists and sends them out curious and demanding": I have to say I quite frequently saw them do precisely the reverse. Furthermore I'm extremely sceptical about the scratch culture that has emerged from and become synonymous with the organization. They were also often eager to take sole or dominant credit for work which did not in fact originate with them, and to collude with lazy and admiring critics in creating the impression that nothing worth knowing about emerged in any other way than through their auspices: which I suppose I must admit I find, not least, a bit personally insulting, since I've worked at BAC only once, several years ago, for two days, and it was one of the more miserable experiences of my professional life: I do realize it's a bit shallow to read it through my personal experience, but there are plenty like me. I don't necessarily decry the company's efforts to bolster its brand by inflating its authority, Wizard of Oz style; what's more symptomatic is that the brand is, to my mind, too bulked out with factors of scale, and with value-neutral indicators like 'innovation' and a totally meaningless and deceptive rhetoric around 'risk'.

Conversely, I think under David Jubb and his current team the programming has become bolder and more searching. (A real tipping point for me was their decision to rehouse the Bohman Brothers' music events after they were displaced from their previous home at the Bonington in Vauxhall. That series has been vital to London and I admire BAC very much for taking it on. There's also a personal pleasure for me in that outcome, because I was the twisted matchmaker who pointed the splendid Patrizia Paolini in the Bohmans' direction, which I think got that particular ball rolling.) The language David sometimes uses when he's trying to describe the kind of work he doesn't like is -- I think -- deplorable, though I'm sure it wouldn't strike me as such were he not in such a culturally conspicuous position. But I do get the impression -- as, to be fair, I always have, whenever I've talked to BAC workers -- of a tight clutch of people who are all thinking hard and working hard and feel passionate about what they do. On a systematic and corporate level BAC is a cross between a selfish giant and a nude emperor: but theatre happens somewhere else entirely, at a personal level, in the movements of relation between and inside people, and at that level, there is much to commend about BAC, and plenty to enjoy and admire in a great deal of the work they present.

So: this post is not by way of a spleen-vent at a time when we should all be pulling together (which we should -- not least because the threat to BAC is by no means isolated; there is a real sense of climate change in the British arts scene right now, and this won't be the only struggle we have to engage in this year, I'm sure). It's more a wish to raise a supporting voice that is not uncritical -- which much of the cheerleading on the Guardian blog necessarily is -- but has no vested interest and would nonetheless recognize and endorse the importance of BAC's continued survival. I would a hundred times rather have a BAC with all the faults and provocations that have bugged me all along, than no such focal point for emerging theatre artists and a bloody great Wetherspoons on Lavender Hill. As one BAC insider wrote to me yesterday: "It's like with friends, you see flaws face-up because you care about them more. If this was the Royal Court, I wouldn't know where to start." (Though maybe the Court has brighter prospects under its new artistic leadership -- but that's another story.)

If you're a Wandsworth resident and you haven't yet made a noise about all this, I'd really urge you to do so. As I say, I'm not sure that objections lodged from outside the borough won't have a flip-effect: though, having said that, if, as one Councillor seems to have suggested, there is an argument for Wandsworth continuing to fund BAC in line with the proportion of its work that engages a specifically Wandsworth audience, that actually could be a manageable outcome for the venue, given the more than decent numbers BAC achieves in that regard.

A more digestible -- and inevitably more partial -- but I think extremely impressive -- account of the situation is given by David Jubb in an interview with Dominc Cavendish over at theatreVOICE. I hope it works out, I really do. Initially the shutdown of BAC was impossible to imagine; after a few days' contemplation, it's not, and the prospect is desperately scary. At every level of theatrical artistic activity in and out of London, BAC has become a vital presence.

2. While I was away, the death was announced of Alice Coltrane. Truly sad news. She was an awesome musician and, judging by her recent album Translinear Light, still had it seriously going on. It was good that she had fully emerged, in the last fifteen or twenty years of her life, from the shadow of her late husband, and a more acute critical engagement with her own work as an independent artist became belatedly possible. Odd that such an out-and-out devotional artist should be a favourite of an ungodly soul like me, but there's no denying the extraordinary centripetal force that her spiritual beliefs exerted on the distinctive modalities and decorations -- and the sheer drive -- of her work. If you're not already an Alice Coltrane listener, my favourite albums are Ptah the El Daoud (with Pharaoh Sanders and Joe Henderson), Eternity and Transcendence -- and, actually, Translinear Light. But my guess is you can probably drop in to her body of work wherever you like, and there'll be something rewarding and engrossing right in front of you. Much of her work got reissued over the last decade and you can probably pick an album up in Fopp for a fiver, or do the Amazon thing. It's beautiful, enduring stuff, and my hunch is the critical estimation of it will continue to rise for a while yet.

Incidentally, I have a feeling there's a track from Translinear Light on the playlist over at Gevorts Box. I might upload one or two more the next time I update -- which is overdue, as I still haven't made good my promise to feature a track from each of the Furtive 50 albums. I'll give you a shout when it's done.

3. More depressing than the threatened closure of BAC, more lamentable than the passing of Alice Coltrane, I have to tell you now -- and I found this out quite by accident really, idly following a thread that began with a Wikipedia visit to check (in a rather ungentlemanly way) how old Cleo Rocos actually is -- that there is a minor planet named after Enya. Not just with the same name, but literally named after her. As you know, my dears, the Controlling Thompson is no stuffed shirt (despite appearances to the contrary): I'm delighted that there's a planet Brianwilson, and there's one called Rammstein too, and I'm even prepared to accept there's one named Oldfield. But what chills grip the wretched heart on reading the sentence: "Where is (6433) Enya tonight? Customisable ephemerides are available."


Mark Fisher said...

Dutifully following Lyn Gardner's instructions, I sent an email to Wandsworth council expressing my amazement at its proposals for BAC. Like you, I wondered whether it'd be good or bad to be writing from 400 miles away, but this standard letter I got in reply doesn't mention the national dimension:

Outlined below is a note of the Council's position regarding
financial support to the BAC which has been circulated to everyone that has written in. I am afraid that due to the sheer volume of emails I have received on this matter I am unable to respond to each and every point raised on an individual basis.

The Council is in a very tight financial position where it is not getting enough money from the Government to keep up with the rising costs of the services it is expected to provide.

Next year our grant increase has been set at the lowest possible
level (2.7%) which is well below the rate of inflation.

In effect the Council is having to find an extra £5m this year - and even more in future years - just to keep services going at their existing level. This is the gap between the extra £3m grant we get from the Government and the extra £8m needed to keep up with inflation. Even if we raised Council Tax by the maximum allowed this would go nowhere near bridging this gap.

The grant we receive has to cover all our services - with the sole exception of schools. We are therefore looking at the cost of services to the elderly at the same time as support for arts and leisure services.

The Council has supported the Arts Centre for 25 years. This support is worth £370,000 in the current year - equivalent to £3.12 on a Band D Council Tax. That we are having to consider limiting our funding now is the inevitable consequence of the reduced level of Government grant.

Given the current constraints we are proposing to set our own financial support to BAC at a level that is proportionate to the use made of the centre by Wandsworth residents. This, according to BAC's own figures, is around 25 per cent. We have also said that while they have been able to occupy the building rent-free in the past this must now be put on a commercial footing.

There have been what both sides feel to be positive discussions and I have authorised Council officers to explore some of the ideas put forward by BAC. Further meetings are arranged and it is hoped a solution can be found.

A report to the March/April cycle of Council Committees will outline the conclusion of these discussions.

Yours sincerely

Councillor Edward Lister
Leader of the Council

Chris Goode said...

Hi Mark, thanks very much for this, it's useful and - dare one say - encouraging.

It would be interesting to know how many venues in London are now required to pay rent at or close to commercial rates. Certainly the Borough of Camden went quite systematically through its venues a few years back when I was at CPT to try and bring rents up to commercial levels, despite registered charity status etc etc. In a way it's surprising that BAC has lasted so long on what seems to amount to a gentlemen's agreement.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris - Merv here.. I tried to keep the comment brief on the guardian blog - and i suppose i really meant "this is what BAC is trying to do". I spent years wanting to get work on at BAC (at which time both CPT and David Jubb in his former life offered me a lot of support) and failing to break into the charmed circle and I think my attitude to it has changed a bit since David took over - it is, as people have been pointing out meekly in case it weakens the case, a bit bolder (this is Dufty's doing as well, I think) - and i think it's more open. Even so I, like you, still haven't really shown that much there. Scratch didn't work well for me because it has inherent limits in the type of work it can support - and I think it celebrates the incomplete in a spurious way (tied up with people's use of the phrase "right to fail" in some bizarre distorted meaning of "duty to fail"). Scratch certainly became the only way to get work in there for a while, as well as consigning very many promising projects to development paralysis. Its mid-term impact on ACE may also be problematic. But BAC has certainly become a magnet for enterprising and dissatisfied theatre-makers and even when its eye has been on eye-catching and sometimes iffy projects, grumbling folk in the audience sprungboarded(?) off to make something better. I'm a wandsworth resident, and it's basically the only cultural content in the whole borough. Wandsworth really should be proud of it and let it down gently if it's going to do so. I'm worried about local funding in general - half the time we hear about devolving more power to local government, and then we see what happens when they're up against it - panic-stricken measures like this. If it's going to be belt-tightening whoever runs wherever as seems to be the case then we're all going to get pinched.. I'd love to see a feature on local councils' cultural spend trends over the last 10 years.
anyway glad you're well - we should hook up soon.

Chris Goode said...

Hi Merv, good to hear from you on this, thanks for dropping by. I hope my pick-up of your remark on the Graun blog didn't seem snide -- it just happened to express an exact flip-over of the biggest gripe I have about BAC (its repeated, arguably systematic, failure to engage with artists on specifically artistic terms): Xt knows how many companies came back to CPT having fallen off that wretched bloody ladder and feeling way more dazed and confused than they ever were on the way in.

But, as I say in the post, I absolutely agree with your assessment of the continuing functional -- and symbolic -- importance of BAC, like it or not, and if it comes to a fight, I know which side I'll be lining up with.

As I said to Mark, I was surprised to learn that BAC was paying so little rent, & I'd have thought a three- or five-year phase-in of a more realistic arrangement would be a reasonable outcome: it's the sheer abruptness of the hike and the (apparent) short notice that's so damaging and so unmanageable.

I may be being ingenuous but Wandsworth seem to be conducting themselves relatively transparently now that this furore has been initiated -- my impression of Camden, when I was at CPT, was consistently of decent people aware they were making desperately difficult choices that were always to somebody's disadvantage. I don't know if there's an element of grandstanding in all this -- everything points to them totally appreciating the importance of BAC and perhaps anticipating a reaction on this scale. So maybe there's some intention to draw public attention to the below-inflation grant increase from central govt. Who knows? I guess we'll see.

A bird tells me there was some rabble-rousing at Shunt on Friday so we could yet see the town hall in flames! How cool if BAC turns out to be our generation's '68 Cinematheque... -- Unfortunately, the majority of BAC's most vocal supporters seem to be trying to fight the battle where it isn't.

Interesting to hear your own experiences, Merv. & yes, hope to run into you someplace soon. (Like, at the last-ditch sit-in, obviously, if not before...)

Anonymous said...

speaking as that 'BAC insider' quoted... well, I'd only say I was really an insider over the last couple of years and I have mine own share of less than perfect stories from before that...

I think that BAC can suffer from the (at least partly self-inflicted) aspiration that it should or could be the perfect venue, an expression of philosophies about the best ways to make the best work. a 'national theatre of the fringe', if you like. for this platonic ideal of a venue, the way in which people and ideas are said no to is just as important as those that get the aye. there is a duty of care. but no venue practically can manage to look properly after the noes, when its own justified self-interest means it will concentrate on those it wants to support. a gap between the reality and the aspiration makes for frustration.

I also think there has (in the past, but not so much now perhaps) been a dogmatic expression of what is the best BAC way to make work. and a dogma is necessarily too rigid.

I'd like it that if this crisis is successfully resolved it might open up for more of us to feel free to discuss how BAC works and doesn't work for us. personally and abstractly. as you have already, boldly and beautifully,

but let's save it first, proverbial warts and all.

Chris Goode said...

Ah, Tass, you outed yourself! I was hoping to whip up a little vortex of fervid speculation. Oh well, next time.

I absolutely recognize the predicaments you describe, from both sides. And your proposition of more honest dialogue is interesting. Certainly since this all kicked off, I've been surprised at the amount of dissent I've heard from colleagues who share my concerns, or have others of their own, but who are resigned to muttering into their pints... I think many folks -- whether or not they feel that they have a personal investment or some similar promise tied up in BAC -- have the sense that it's so much bigger than them, than all of us, that it's impossible to take the necessary and progressive step of engaging critically and affirmatively with the organization, rather than bitching about it in the dark. That you might as well put a message in a bottle.

I too, as a confirmed BAC grockle, have the sense that at least some elasticity is being introduced into the proprietary dogma: which is a start. The core problem is, that dogma only ever existed to fill the gap where the clear and actionable artistic vision should have been. And that's still a big issue. Heaven knows I said as much when I was interviewed for the AD post, in what we scientists now refer to as 'the single most cringingly awful hour of my life'.

But as I've said everywhere, I absolutely want BAC to survive, and to claim the stronger and more authentically successful future that it and its many supporters deserve.