Should the arts be publicly or privately funded?

Who pays? You decide…

On 20th August 2015    By Ilana Mitchell

Investigating new ways to raise funds for our projects is bringing rise to all sorts of ethical conundrums. Like: how much to charge audience members for ticketed events?

As with all Wunderbar processes, setting a ticket price isn’t simple. The only time it was easy was for 2009’s Who Wants to be…? event, where a set ticket price of £10 doubled as the contribution to a pot of money which the audience collectively decided how to spend during the event.

Very often, we don’t sell any kind of tickets, because there isnt always a commodifiable end point to our projects. When there is an end point, it isnt always timetabled: how can you charge someone to watch something that just pops up in front of them while they’re walking down a street? Whenever we have had ticket prices, we’ve tried to keep them low, so that no event costs more than a cinema ticket, or a couple of pints. We want to make sure we don’t make our events unaffordable or put people off from taking a punt on something a bit out of the ordinary.

So, with a ticketable event coming up, and following interesting examples by ARC in Stockton, and other theatre projects, we thought we’d have a crack at an experiment. We want to find out how we can make our project more accessible as well as raise an income for future projects.

Some of the many questions:

  • Are we just talking about affordability, judging how much money an individual has available to spend on leisure? Or about mitigating financial risk “try before you buy” or pay what you think it’s worth (this is the important distinction Annabel Turpin has made in the ARC experiment to get audiences to take a risk on a new project.)

  • What is it the ticket price pays for, when the work is already made and, like a train with one fewer passenger, will cost almost the same to run?

  • And how, if Wunderbar puts itself on the line – do we not fall into the trap of not ever taking any money from audiences that would otherwise be willing to pay?

  • How does an independent organisation manage online ticketing without incurring (or ticket buyers incurring) big fees to third parties. And where is the third party website that is up for experimenting with how to charge (we’ve done LOADS of research and are yet to find a great solution)?

Starting to think about solutions: 

Bored of internet research, we started to thinking of other possibilities. We thought about creating a loyalty card – one that gathers information on the owner, and through that information, suggests a price for them.

The information gathered would need to include things like, “how much do you earn”, “how much disposable income do you have after basic living costs are met” “how much do you spend on presents for your close friends or family” “how often do you go out socially” “do you think the arts should be publicly funded” “do you tax dodge” etc etc.

As an experiment, it could be interesting. But it would be a whole project in itself. And, really we like it more when folks can weigh such factors and make their own decisions.

Instead, we’re going for a busking-style money collection system for our wilderness survival exploration event in Kielder this September. Its a bit “Pay what you feel” but with so much faffing about with online payments (seriously, we’ve been at this for hours!) we’ve gone for the old fashioned, pass the hat round. Or you could write us a cheque (a what?!) or transfer a donation to our bank account. Or, if you can’t or choose not to pay anything, then there’s no obligation to worry about.

A slice of the pie

I find the concept of dividing the cost of the project by audience members to give a per head value, or an average ticket price, problematic. Even when a project is subsidised. I’m not convinced it is economically robust to measure cost based on an end point as consumed by an audience member. (I realise that this simplifies models for pricing, but it is a basic basis for determining price).

I like to compare it to buying clothes. My friends mum said she should consider how much to pay for clothes on a ‘price per wear’ basis. She was at the time justifying spending on glasses, an item that will ideally last well over long periods. But I like to think about the comparison between, say, knickers or socks, and a wetsuit or wedding dress. If you think about price per wear, the difference in spend between these items is even wider than just the price tag – for most people, a wetsuit is a rarely worn item, and there are few that would wear a wedding dress more than once.

But we don’t measure like that. There is a huge amount of detailed technical work that goes into making wetsuits and wedding dresses; fabric technology, performance testing needs, bespoke tailoring – far from necessary for your everyday pants. (I say this as a big fan of “Who Made Your Pants” btw). So the end point price is much higher, and we accept that. Price-per-use is a great way to view everyday purchases, especially to ensure ethics aren’t compromised. But it doesn’t work for a special event. If we did wilderness survival events everyday they wouldn’t be special. (They’d be a way of life, not a performance).

The secret recipe?

But in being special, being an experience that wont be repeated exactly, ever, measuring the value of the event in monetary terms doesn’t make sense either. Catty guests might speculate, but it’s a rare bride who wears a dress with the price label sticking out. Some may measure its value in its price tag, but mostly it will be valued for its craft, in being a family heirloom, in making the wearer look very much the centre of attention.

In the same way then, I don’t justify a project on its cost. When you make art that doesn’t have commercial value as its bottom line, in a society that does, a very tangled picture emerges (no pun intended). Somewhere along the line things cost money. And somewhere along the line money has to come from somewhere to pay for the things. But not everything that costs money creates direct resale potential.

We need to be better, in general, at untangling the knots or accepting a certain amount of Houdiniism. After all, we are talking about the transformative, magical world of art, not bread, or stamp duty, or iPhones. It’s not actually a secret recipe, it’s an uncommodifiable ingredient.

Our experiment:

We’d like to find a way in which those of you that wish to come to our special event, can come, without money being a barrier. We’d like you to make a calculation for yourselves as to how much you would like, or can afford, to pay for such an experience. So paying isn’t the barrier for coming along. Wanting to come is.

We aren’t suggesting this event is some sort of a basic necessity. It isnt oxygen, or water, or sleep. Rather it falls into the category of things, that, like wetsuits, are a kind of necessity that people choose to make themselves feel alive – to feel human, to not just survive.

Most people wont experience this project. We can only accommodate around 90 people after all. But whatever happens, you 90 will have an experience no one else has had. You will be able to retell as much or as little as you like. Maybe it’ll rain, and we’ll all get a bit soggy, huddle up with cups of cocoa. Maybe you’ll forget your tent pegs, and the cover will blow off in the night. Maybe you’ll meet your future partner, catch their eye glinting in the firelight. Maybe you’ll change your life, decide to move from city to country, live off grid, like Jim and Rob used to.

How can we ‘measure’, or put a price on, any of that? We just want to have a special night under the stars, and a morning cooking breakfast round a campfire with an interesting group of people who want to join us.

But we also want to continue wanting to do things like this, and being able to pay for the bits that cost money. So thats where you get to decide, be part of our experiment.

The price-per-head maths:

If 90 people come, it’ll cost between £45-60 per head, based on the £5,000-6,000 we will spend, in cash, making it happen.

It also ensures that 6 people – 2 performers, 1 supporter, 3 people that do work for Wunderbar – get paid for a few days of work, and they along with audiences will discover new knowledge and skills.

We don’t imagine there are many people that would choose to spend £45 to listen to a story being told around a campfire, let alone could afford it. The funding we have for this project means we don’t have to ask that.

We also couldn’t experiment with ticket prices without that public funding subsidy. But we know we’d struggle to continue to get public funding if we can’t also prove that we can get private income – from things like ticket sales. We’re hedging our bets here, to an extent, that some of you that would like to come can also choose to put some money into our buckets.

But more than that we’re hoping some of you will join us. We’ll be there whoever comes, and we want you to come whatever. Whatever your financial situation, whatever your feelings about public funding, whatever your feelings about cooking over an open fire, about sleeping under the stars, about apocalypse preparedness…

Also we can’t eat all those marshmallows on our own.



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