Brave new market

14th March 1997 at 00:00
Once upon a time, arts and education promoted ideals. The idea that artists and teachers should help marketing officers do their jobs would have been ridiculed. Yet this is one of the aims of the Cambridge International Arts Meeting. David Self reports

Some time back, the Norfolk Youth Orchestra was planning a concert which included Peter Maxwell Davies' An Orkney Wedding. For its full magic to work, it requires a bagpiper to process up the hall, playing a noble maestoso theme. As it happens, the Norfolk Youth Orchestra lacks a bagpiper. David Sheppard (who runs the self-supporting Arts in Education Service in Norfolk) was approached. Had he funds to hire a professional piper? No way.

But then he remembered an invitation to run a one-day training course in Cornwall. He decided he might just fit it in if he drove through the night, ran the course and drove back through the next night - which he did. Then he converted the money Cornwall paid Norfolk for his one day's secondment into a fee for the bagpiper.

As their Christmas show this year, the newly refurbished Cambridge Arts Theatre staged Dick Whittington and His Cat. One particular matinee was selling less well than others. Their inspirational education manager Vivien Ewington begged 250 free seats. She had to decide whether to sell them to increase her department's funds. For once, she decided to play fairy godmother and gave them away to an "urban priority" primary school on the outskirts of the city (a city not so generally affluent as is sometimes imagined). The tickets were eagerly accepted. On a winter's afternoon, the children walked across the city to see the show. The school couldn't afford a bus.

Both stories make me weep but there are doubtless those who will laud David Sheppard for "good practice" and damn Vivien Ewington for not running a lucrative lottery to see which school should have got the tickets.

Somewhere in the dim and distant past, I seem to remember, the arts and education promoted ideals. Their function was not to promulgate the customs of the market place. We would have ridiculed the idea that artists and teachers should spend time seeing how they could help marketing officers do their job - yet that is one of the purposes of the Cambridge International Arts Meeting to be held this August.

Its co-ordinator, Anne Roberts, who also runs the Arts Marketing Association, had begun to feel that artistic directors don't listen enough to the marketing officers who've got to sell their work - but she was equally aware that those in education feel that their needs and strictures aren't understood by either producers or marketing people. Hence this summer's conference (called a "meeting" because it will have an international dimension and "because Europeans won't come to something called a 'conference'").

It is given immediacy not just because everyone is embracing "marketing-speak" (as in phrases such as "Marketing is product augmentation"). Artists are painfully aware that schools aren't buying their "product". Because of decreasing budgets and also the demands of the national curriculum on pupil time, every trip must be fully justified. One side effect is that all regional Shakespeare productions now seem to be of one of the GCSE favourites (Romeo and Juliet, Midsummer Night's Dream or Macbeth) or just possibly the A-level Hamlet or Lear.

But teachers are aware there are many other shows worth seeing. However, perhaps because schools and specialist arts teachers feel more isolated since the introduction of local management of schools, they want reassurance before booking. Consequently, David Sheppard in Norwich is regularly asked, "Is such-and-such company any good?" The other side of the equation has the companies ringing him, wanting introductions to likely teachers. They also rely heavily on reviews in this paper to quote in their publicity and appeals for grants. Failing that, they resort to less orthodox methods to gain credibility. Only last month, the artistic director of one touring theatre company rang me with an offer of free seats and a drink if I'd rewrite his blurb, filling it with phrases such as "a vital part of every key stage 4 programme of study", as appropriate.

Making "product" attractive to schools (as well as running this summer's conference) is part of the job of the Eastern Touring Agency (ETA). The brainchild of Lynne Williams (now its artistic director), it is a devolved company set up to carry out the Eastern Arts Board's touring policy - and in particular to see that companies reach the smaller venues in its region. It does this by giving subsidy to venues, not companies.

Its education development manager is Catherine Rose. She is aware that the educational world looks on marketing as "the spawn of the devil" and she speaks with some scorn about "the complete Philistinism of the present Government". But she is also pragmatic. "How do you educate a child about theatre if you don't take him or her to the theatre?" This, she insists, means two things. Theatre must survive, which, in turn, means marketing. "The words 'education' and marketing' should never meet in the same sentence but we don't get anything to happen by having them at loggerheads."

But ETA isn't seen to be solving every problem. Andrew Breakwell who runs the Ipswich-based Wolsey Theatre-in-Education company wishes it would further disseminate work that's already being produced in the region rather than bringing in work from outside. And to David Sheppard it is largely "irrelevant".

For Norfolk, the real change came with LMS. The impact on arts education there (and in similarly rural authorities) was enormous. "By the time the money reached a small primary school, it was too little to buy anything. Some schools were getting Pounds 90 a year." As a result, he and his team sell half-day packages such as a visit from an advisory teacher who gives a drama lesson and then involves the class teacher in post-lesson analysis. Or it might be a five-hour sequence designed "to get recorder playing off the ground" or "to get the choir up to scratch for the Christmas concert".

Interestingly, since arts money stopped being ring-fenced, the amount now being spent is greater than the amount formerly held centrally. The reason? Schools have started diverting money to music as good music tuition is perceived to be the sign of a quality school. Poor old drama.

The situation varies from authority to authority, even within the ETA region. Cambridgeshire no longer has any dance or drama advisory service but advisers still exist in Suffolk - where they even come free to schools. As does the Wolsey TIE Company. Even so, recent cuts have meant that Andrew Breakwell has lost 20 "actor weeks" and a dedicated administrative assistant. "The notion of having six people in a play has gone out of the window." And he's looking to a time when he must find paying audiences. He, for one, expects to be at the ETA Cambridge International Arts Meeting.

Who else will be there is open to speculation: it's not the most appealing time of year for those working in the educational sector. But they are vital to complete the triangle of creative and marketing people. Yet, as Karen Dust, education officer at Eastern Arts Board, says: "It's not in-service training of teachers. It's more wide-ranging, providing teachers with opportunities to see what the arts sector can bring to education."

So there will be separate education, marketing and creative strands to the conference. Delegates will go to their own sessions but also to joint seminars as well as to lectures by "high profile artists, philosophers, theorists and practitioners". A video will be available, showing how four young people experience the arts, and there'll be a "finance cafe" (a training session with financial experts). So will it address the problems facing David Sheppard in Norfolk? Catherine Rose frankly admits: "The nitty-gritty practicalities are not what we'll be spending much time on."

Even so, she is busy helping venues to sell productions and workshops (such as IOU's Cold Fusion) to teachers by spelling out their relevance to, in this case, drama, visual arts and design students. She is also encouraging venues to make wholesale deals with bus companies - thus obtaining cheaper rates than might be negotiated by individual schools.

At one stage ETA had wondered whether to title their summer meeting "Is the (marketing) tail wagging the dog?" This was on the understanding that a wagging tail is the sign of a happy dog. Maybe so - but it is normally the dog that likes to initiate the wagging. Or, as Anne Roberts puts it: "What schools really want are free workshops and free performances."

Such happenings may now only exist in dreams and when Vivien Ewington can scatter a few free seats around. Or when her theatre is able to subsidise a week's youth theatre next month (a part of the BT National Connections scheme) thanks to profits from English Touring Opera's week in Cambridge.

But up in Norwich, David Sheppard accepts the power of the dog's tail. "It's no good trying to exist in a commercial context unless you adopt the thinking that goes with it." Catherine Rose has an additional warning. "Teachers are in danger of doing to artists what the rest of society does to teachers. That is to say you've got a vocation and job satisfaction so you only need Pounds 12,000 a year."

The Cambridge International Arts Meeting is on August 7-9. Details from 01223 578078

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