Features Published 24 October 2019

The Ickiness of Marketing Your Art

Figs in Wigs' Rachel Porter talks about the underacknowledged awkwardness of selling theatre – especially when it's on the weirder end of the spectrum.
Rachel Porter

‘Little Wimmin’ by Figs in Wigs

Last week me and my colleagues aka The Figs had a marketing meeting with the team at Pleasance, and once again we attempted to describe our show. This is an ongoing game that we have to play whenever meeting new people, speaking to potential bookers or collaborators, or explaining to our relatives when they ask us, just one more time, to explain what it is exactly that we do

Yuck. We hate talking about our shows, especially before weve made them. Because ultimately what youre doing is trying to sell yourself, or your ideas, before youve actually worked out who you are or what you think.

Theres also something icky about marketing theatre and art. It feels a bit gross and the best reason Ive ever read for why this might be is from artist/economist Hans Abbing in his aptly titled book Why Are Artists Poor? If youre an artist and you havent read it, I highly recommend you buy a copy – if you can afford one that is. If not you could always nip to the library.

Abbing argues that art has a completely unique economy that successfully operates in both the gift sphere (subsidies, donations) and the market sphere (buying and selling stuff) but that there a lot of myths about art that make it uncomfortable to associate it with cash-money-pounds. These myths include:

  • Art is sacred.
  • Artists are selflessly devoted to art.
  • Money and commerce devalue art.
  • Artistic quality can only exist if it is independent of costs and demand.
  • Artists have to suffer.

Sounds fun. Now, these are myths not facts, but for centuries they have affected the way our culture views and consumes art. Abbing explains that despite the fact that art is bought and sold for investments or even money laundering our culture is ‘uneasy with the fact that art is measured in monetary terms’. He states:

Compared with professions that require a similar level of training, artists receive the lowest amount of income from the market, and the highest amount from gifts.

Perhaps it feels less sleazy when you donate to the arts rather than by buying an art product. Perhaps thats why us trying to plug our show feels like we are staring capitalism right in the face and saying ok youve won, well done, were all on board with your business model and even though its screwing us over were too deep in to dig ourselves out of this economic quicksand so fine. FINE. Take us, take us with you because theres no viable alternative and Ive tried to read Sapiens so that I understand how it works but its very long and I have other more important stuff to do, like getting people to buy tickets to my theatre show.


But with all this pressure to make art that sells, there might be an argument that the general content of theatre is beginning to shift towards shows with subject matter that is easy to market; funding bodies favour shows that have the potential for commercial success as they want their money to help other people make more money. Its almost like a government-funded natural selection process where shows that speak to a zeitgeist sell out, and then artists see those type of shows selling out and then more artists make those type of shows. Theres nothing wrong with this, hot topics are hot for a reason, and wanting to make money is not evil – artists deserve to make money. But maybe it narrows the type of art that is being created. If youre an artist and you could make ANYTHING you wanted with a guaranteed audience, would you actually make a show about Brexit, or would you make it about absolutely anything else?

I think selling yourself is harder when you make shows that are on the left field experimental end of the spectrum. Partly because your audience pool is smaller in the first place, but also because the work you are making is actively trying to disrupt the mainstream and it can feel a bit hypocritical to use a capitalist model to market an anti-capitalist product.

So, Ive been doing this thing where I refer to everything that I go to see as a play. Dance shows, club nights, gigs, theyre all plays. I cant remember exactly when I began doing this, but its stuck. At first it was solely for comic effect. I enjoyed congratulating friends who were doing hardcore durational performance art on their plays, very long plays, but plays nonetheless. But the more I did it the more I felt maybe it had the potential to do something useful.

Firstly, theres the chance it opens up the weirder end of the theatre spectrum to more people. Shocking as it may seem I do have friends who dont work in the entertainment industries, and if they go to the theatre, they want to be, you guessed it, entertained. Now, if I were to tell them I was going to see a live art blood letting piece in a white walled gallery space they might not be that keen to come along. But if told them it was a play, they might be more inclined to give it a go.

You may think what Im doing is called lying, but actually its more like false advertising. And if we can agree that theatre and art is well within the market sphere then surely thats allowed. Plus, if youll actually end up enjoying the thing you were falsely advertised doesnt that make the act of falsifying the product justifiable?

Because I cant lie to you. I am primarily writing this in order to sell some tickets to the play I am in. Thats the main reason. But instead Ive somehow written a meta-article thats plugging a show by talking about the difficulties of plugging a show from an anti-capitalist perspective. Though in a way the meta-ness of this article is akin to the meta-theatre you will experience if you come to see Little Wimmin. So actually this isnt false advertising at all, its a very accurate representation of our product. 

So if youd like to donate to Figs in Wigs please buy a ticket to our play Little Wimmin at Pleasance 6th-9th Nov. See you at the merch stand. 


Rachel Porter is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine



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