This provocation was part of a recent thread on Forest Fringe’s Twitter page. It appeared within a discussion that explored (in the sketch-like way that Twitter allows) the rights and wrongs of executive pay in arts organisations – driven by the ongoing conversations about the funding and redundancy crisis in Britain’s post-Covid-19 theatre. Forest Fringe’s Twitter thread came not long before The Guardian posted a blog by the theatre director, Fiona Laird, about the ways in which the Government’s bail-out and furlough schemes appear to have protected the infrastructure of the arts instead of the people who provide much of the art that appears on Britain’s stages. In the days since, there have been many more threads and discussions about senior pay – most responding to an ArtsProfessional article revealing the 100 UK arts managers who share £10 million in pay between them.
A lot of the online criticism has focused on salaries at the Royal Opera House, with commentators questioning the appropriateness of the Music Director’s £795k combined pay and fees. It is important to note that Sir Antonio Pappano has waived his salary for the period of the pandemic, so it is irresponsible to draw a line between his pay and redundancies within his organisation. However, it is clear that the current moment is providing us with an opportunity to ask what it means for publicly subsidised arts organisations to participate in a global market that sets salaries for prestigious artists and leaders like Pappano so high.
This is a complex discussion. The pandemic has, as Laird’s blog demonstrates, led to antagonism between freelance and salaried workers – an antagonism that risks characterising the difficulties faced by those on both sides in unhelpful ways. In order to avoid some of these problems, it is, perhaps, best to look quite broadly at the question of economic inequality in the arts – asking why it is commonplace for some (often highly experienced) artists to work on projects for less than the minimum wage, while others working for publicly subsidised organisations are comfortably within the top 1% of earners. Indeed, Forest Fringe’s statement has stayed with me in the days since I read it, because it seeks to unpick a pernicious idea at the centre of how we think about value in the arts: that some kinds of knowledge and experience are exceptional commodities and others are commonplace and, thus, less valuable.
In the aftermath of the pandemic and the recent Black Lives Matter protests, it strikes me that the theatre industry needs to articulate the difference between knowledge, experience and exceptionalism in a much more nuanced way. We need to unpack the myths of talent and hard work. It is undoubtedly the case that the leaders of our key cultural institutions are experts who hold important knowledge. Some might argue that they are, therefore, worthy of their exceptional salaries. However, if we are to define them as exceptional because of their hard-earned knowledge and expertise, we must also develop the appropriate critical apparatus for describing clearly the importance and value of what they know and how they work. We must ask whether the labour of the person who leads is worth multiples of the individuals providing and servicing the ‘content’ that the theatres provide. And we must ask why certain kinds of art and certain kinds of artist fit comfortably within narratives of cultural and financial prestige – interrogating which artists and institutions tend to be given the labels ‘world leading’ and ‘necessary’.
In a recent arts advocacy piece in the Financial Times, Sam Mendes talked about Britain’s status as ‘a global soft power superpower’. He did not, however, question how thinking about art as a mode of political influence tends to exclude and marginalise those whose work and identity doesn’t fit existing paradigms of Britishness, or those who, to borrow from Chris Goode, make work ‘against the grain’.
For some reason, when I was reflecting on Forest Fringe’s tweet, I remembered something that happened to me a couple of months ago. I was talking to an acquaintance who, like me, works in a Theatre Studies department at a university. He expressed shock that I hadn’t read a certain play, and I went home feeling bad about myself. As someone who makes, teaches and researches theatre, I was ashamed for not knowing more. I felt bad about being admonished. It wasn’t until later in the same week that I began to understand that my shame didn’t emerge from a failure of knowledge. The feeling of shame emerged from the fact that someone had deemed my expertise to be less valuable than his. It never crossed my mind to grill him about how much he knew about stand-up comedy or dance or live art. Because PROPER expertise in THE field relates to the study of plays (often examined as literary texts).
The idea of a canon has been subjected to at least 50 years of critical pressure within the arts and humanities. The notion of the exceptional art object or text has been critiqued in relation to critical accounts of taste, gender and social and political inequalities. We need to subject notions of exceptionalism in the leadership of our cultural institutions to the same scrutiny. The experiences and training that lead individuals to positions of power are most frequently granted to those who can navigate institutions without significant friction. They are granted to those who can pass. In many respects, those who end up in positions of power, earning high salaries, are in those positions precisely because of their lack of exceptionalism. The people (mostly men) on short lists for the artistic directorship of organisations like the National Theatre have all carved out careers within a very slowly evolving status quo – a status quo that tends to privilege Shakespeare and opera over panto or children’s theatre.
As the conversations that have recently unfolded online seem to suggest, we need to start asking whether roles are so challenging, and the individuals who perform them so important, that they should require the same sort of subsidy as a small to medium theatre company. But when talking about the future of theatre in the UK, we must also be very careful to consider questions about salary and staffing with reference to critical frameworks that reach beyond economics.
It is necessarily true that specific forms of expertise and knowledge cannot be commonplace, because specialist skills are arrived at through time-consuming, specialist practice. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we should hold the individuals who hold specialist knowledge and expertise in exceptionally high esteem. The knowledge and power held by individuals is intertwined with the societies they inhabit. It is, therefore, worth asking if those who have gained experience, power and prestige within the established hierarchies of theatre are the people we want to guide us to a future that embraces plurality, innovation and a break from the inequalities and white supremacy of the present. Experience is a privilege. It is a privilege because it is not accessible to everyone. To reward those already in receipt of privilege is to entrench that privilege. It is also to reinforce problematic cultural hierarchies, which seem to state that makers of opera are more deserving and more skilled than stand-up comedians or applied arts practitioners.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t value experience; it is simply to note that being able to point to past success is only one data point that we might use for mapping a potentially successful future. An organisation like the National Theatre has many past successes, but it also has many past failures. We only need to look at the number of female playwrights who have had their work staged on the Olivier, or at the representation of Black and ethnic minority artists on and offstage to see where better leadership could have been provided. When we value a leader’s experience, we should also recognise that such experience is cast in a specific mould. We need to interrogate whether the training that leader was privileged to receive in the past is relevant to and desirable for the future we are trying to imagine. We need to interrogate how much their experience is worth paying for and why – especially when it comes, quite literally, at the expense of other people’s knowledge and experience. I would argue that many of the UK’s ‘key’ artistic roles cost our culture much more than money. If our theatres are genuinely interested in embracing and supporting a more diverse range of voices, our culture must start to question the benefit of funnelling so much of its resources into so few hands.