Theatre 2016 Conference and the Arts Council England – Accessibility for who?

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Theatre 2016 conference

You would have been living under a rock to not have heard or read about the industry-wide event Theatre 2016 run by Bon Culture. Beyond the frustrations that myself and many artists had over the cost of a ticket (£345 + VAT), there have been serious concerns over the use of three West End venues that were not wheel-chair friendly for the whole event.

A fair amount of the frustration has come down to the marketing of the conference. “This is your conference and your chance to have your voice heard” declared the programme, “We will only build on today’s success if the theatre community listens to each other and works together to address the challenges and cease the opportunities ahead.” Well, quite. The theatre community did speak, or at least those who were left tweeting about the conference at home because of the ticket barrier.

Bon Culture did, at least, work with a series of partner organisations to offer reduced tickets to their members. Excellent work, unless of course, like me, you are not part of one of these organisations because again there is a barrier to the cost of membership. Listen, I get it, Bon Culture did a bloody good job of reaching out to these organisations and improving access to the conference but, and this a big but, what most people didn’t seem to realise was the support from Arts Council England and Creative Scotland to support the conference. Wait, Bon Culture received a grant from ACE? Oh yes.

When I reached out to ACE to find out more about their application for a grant I was told “this was not a Grants for the Arts awards, and there is no formal application form, it was a discretionary award”. A proposal from Bon Culture to ACE for subsidy was requested and granted. No application process needed to attain a grant of £4,750

In the proposal Bon Culture said:

“we are aware that not everyone can afford even £345 plus VAT, and yet we truly want this to be an industry-wide conference with no barriers to engagement.”

They addressed three areas of subsidy; people who would make a particular contribution, those “having issues of affordability” and “representation for sectors and diverse delegates who otherwise would have limited engagement”.

The grant, at least in the proposal to ACE, gave 30 tickets to delegates, distributed through the partner organisations “based on the knowledge of their membership”, at a heavily discounted rate of £20. They even acknowledged that “demand is likely to far exceed 30 places” and included what a grant of £9,500 and £14,250 would offer potential delegates, although the latter would have allowed “an allocation for Arts Council England to offer places where there are low numbers of NPOs attending from particular regions”. Lucky NPOs, aye?

When I first read the proposal and learned of the grant given I was grateful that there were at least 30 people who had attended the conference from across the UK at a significantly reduced rate. That gratefulness however is overwhelmed by my frustration that Arts Council England awarded Bon Culture a discretionary award for the purpose of accessibility and yet it still left so many of us who are not part of a membership organisation out of ‘our conference’. Bon Culture’s commitment to making this “an industry-wide conference with no barriers” was, quite frankly, disgusting in the full light of day. There were no public applications to these discounted spaces, no open calls for artists, those with low incomes or from diverse backgrounds. They were given out by the membership organisation to their members supported through public funding.

Anyone who has written a Grant for the Arts application knows the value of a £4,750 grant and the levels of reporting and hoop-jumping we have to do because it is public funding we receive. I can only hope that there will be some serious questions raised from Arts Council England and Creative Scotland over Bon Culture’s use of the grants received to improve accessibility when it has been demonstrated repeatedly through blogs, social commentary and provocations on the day that Theatre 2016 was one of the least accessible industry conferences to be put on in recent years. A quick look at the delegates list with all the Chief Executives, CEOs and Head of ‘x’ Department makes it clear that this was not a conference for all…