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I suspect all of us who work in the arts have learned to be cautious about throwing open our arms to welcome in 2023 with the certainty that the 12 months ahead will be better and kinder to us than the year we have left behind. But might there be grounds for hope?
The arts in the UK are a tightly-interwoven ecosystem. How that ecosystem might best be productively and equitably structured and managed is hotly debated. For those celebrating the start of a new year, I wanted to take the temperature of some of the leaders of that ecosystem. I asked one question: “What is your organisation’s single biggest priority in 2023?”. Here’s what they said.
Sarah Gee is Chief Executive of East London’s Spitalfields Music which delivers an annual festival and year-round learning and participation programme. Sarah strikingly sets the context:
Sarah is not defeated – and we’ll return to Spitalfields. This context is recognised by most leaders, with rising core costs posing the greatest challenge in 2023. So, might our squeezed arts organisations lose focus on reshaping the industry?
For James Mackenzie-Blackman, Chief Executive and Executive Producer at Theatre Royal Plymouth (TRP), the
There’s a general recognition the pressures are being felt by everyone and solutions lie in people working both creatively, and collaboratively. Michael Ockwell is Chief Executive and Creative Director of Mayflower Theatre and MAST Mayflower Studios in Southampton, both of which extensively present touring shows. Michael echoed a prominent message about touring from last year’s UK Theatre Symposium when he said:
He continued with a plea for producers and venues to work together:
At such a pressured time, the emotional toll on arts leaders can be significant. But Sarah Gee at Spitalfields Festival is hopeful:
Elspeth McBain is CEO of Lighthouse, Poole’s Centre for the Arts, with nearly 1,500 seats in the concert hall, a mid-scale theatre with more than 660 seats, together with a studio theatre and cinema. Elspeth neatly summarises the challenges and echoes Sarah in urging us not to lose sight of the people who work in our organisations.
Since ACE’s National Portfolio announcement last November, opera has never been far from the headlines. Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House (ROH), Alex Beard reflected on Covent Garden and ROH’s audiences:
With a nod to recent headlines about opera as an artform, Alex continues:
David Collins, currently Executive Director of Opera North, will be making a short trip across Leeds to lead Northern Ballet later this year, giving him a perspective on these closely connected artforms. As is the case for many, 2023 starts with ACE compliance:
David offers a touring perspective on familiar challenges when he says:
There’s been much talk of priority places and, for leaders whose organisations are at the heart of a local community, contributing to a sense of place is a priority. Stephanie Sirr is Chief Executive of Nottingham Playhouse:
Stephanie is co-President of UK Theatre with Birmingham Hippodrome’s Artistic Director and CEO Jon Gilchrist. Jon agrees that 2023 is about place:
Heading further north, the placemaking baton is picked up by Tom Bird, Chief Executive of York Theatre Royal who will be moving to Sheffield Theatres later this year. Tom said:
Continuing up the A1, we arrive at the architecturally stunning Sage Gateshead on the banks of the River Tyne. Managing Director Abigail Pogson leads an organisation which is home to the Royal Northern Sinfonia, acts as a centre for traditional and folk music and is a popular touring destination for a wide range of contemporary musicians.
Many organisations will be reliant on technology to deepen their audience relationships, something Andrew Recinos, President and CEO of Tessitura is keenly aware of. Tessitura provide CRM, ticketing and fundraising solutions and Andrew regularly speaks to arts leaders globally:
The hesitant audience
In 2022 Baker Richards, together with Indigo and One Further, made a forecast of what we thought would happen with post-pandemic missing audiences which regrettably turned out to be accurate. A sizeable base of high-volume ticket buyers simply never came back after the pandemic. Since then, the cost-of-living crisis has seen the emergence of the hesitant audience. Less confident about being able to attend, they’re more likely to book late or to reduce their overall level of ticket buying. So, it’s no surprise that audiences are top of mind for most leaders who responded.
Douglas Rintoul, newly appointed Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich is clear:
In Belfast, Chief Executive of the Grand Opera House, Ian Wilson reflected on the benefits of undertaking a large capital project in making a more welcoming and accessible space.
In challenging times, real clarity of mission and vision can help to unite teams and show an organisation’s distinctiveness to the outside world. Helen Wallace is Artistic and Executive Director of the London concert hall and gallery Kings Place, which boasts 14 festivals and is soon to open a year-long series of original, 360-degree immersive listening experiences.
Ticket pricing is top of mind for Helen:
Pricing is important to Stephanie Sirr at Nottingham Playhouse too, who says accessibility
Getting audiences in the habit of regular attendance is vital for Michael Nabarro, co-founder and CEO of the ticketing and CRM company Spektrix – investing in this part of its platform is a priority.
Like Ian Wilson in Belfast, the Executive Director of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (RPOAT) James Pidgeon reflects on recent audience success.
James’s invocation of storytelling under a shared sky is a valuable reminder of the unique power of the arts to move and unite people in ever more polarised times. This transformative power of live performance is picked up by Dougie Scarfe, Chief Executive of Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO):
Bournemouth was an early and prominent adopter of streaming and digital membership in the pandemic. “At the BSO, the past three years have seen us pivot to a livestream broadcast model, create a new format of ‘BSO On Your Doorstep’ rural performances, and shift the way our teams work. It’s been tough — it feels like we sped up existing plans by about a decade.”
The last word
For Baker Richards, our objective for 2023 is to help organisations re-think and grow their earned income and to understand and reach their full potential market for future success. I started out by highlighting that the arts are an ecosystem of interconnected people and organisations, undoubtedly at our best when we support each other. 2023 is undoubtedly going to be a difficult year for the arts, but I’ve been heartened by the perspectives of these leaders.
I’ll leave the last word to Tarek Iskander, Artistic Director and CEO of Battersea Arts Centre (BAC), whose response is appropriate not only to BAC but is a rallying call for our sector as a whole. For Tarek, the top priority is
My thanks to everyone who responded, and a happy new year.
This article was first published in ArtsProfessional