Whenever two or more artists get together to discuss arts funding the talk naturally gravitates towards the question: “How can I get more?” The Ask The Audience debate in Leeds was meant to challenge this. It was meant to ask, what would the arts be like if the audience was in charge? Who would benefit if arts funding was put in the hands of everyone.

The organising group, of which I was part, was a collaboration between Leeds Metropolitan University and The Culture Vulture website. We devised an event that consisted of a kind of cultural Question Time in the first half, and a Monopoly-like game in the second, where we would ask participants to form small groups and vote on various funding scenarios.

The panel for the first half was chaired by Cluny Macpherson, former Arts Council England regional director for Yorkshire and now chief officer of Culture and Sport at Leeds City Council. The panelists were Dr Kara McKechnie, lecturer in Dramaturgy and Literary Management from the University of Leeds, supporting a balanced arts funding model that included large flagship arts organisations; Adrian Sinclair, creative director of community arts organisation Heads Together Productions, arguing that arts funding should have a more direct focus on disadvantaged communities; and a-n director Susan Jones, making the case for an increased emphasis on funding for solo artists and freelancers.

Most of the discussion sparked by the panelists’ presentations centred on what the point of the arts was – instrumental or autonomous? Interestingly, the most cogent statement for an instrumental approach came from a marketing officer of a dance agency, Yorkshire Dance – an organisation that swallows up a large bite of regional Arts Council funding. He argued that money put into large organisations “doesn’t just disappear”, it gets fed back into the local economy in the form of wages, and the organisation itself is a form of inward investment, generating profit.

This view was countered by panelist Adrian Sinclair. His organisation, based in a deprived area of the city and not serving an audience that could afford ballet ticket prices, would never represent simple economic sense, he said. If an enterprise came to town that wanted to build a Toxic Sludge Incinerating and Reprocessing Factory, it would turn a bigger profit and engage a far larger number of locals than a community arts centre. If it comes down to brutal economic rationale, art can’t compete with toxic sludge. Not even ballet.

Difficult choices

The second half of the event was a bit of an experiment. I wasn’t sure how the modified Monopoly game would work out (disclosure here; I helped design the game). The point of it was to generate discussion and to highlight that arts funding is based on difficult choices – you can’t fund everything. One of the motivations behind it was a dissatisfaction with the way people in the arts generally duck this debate.

Faced with having a limited amount of money and a choice to spend it supporting either a venue, or a big name, high art event, or a more dispersed, bottom-up, person-centred, experimental funding approach, most groups seemed to favour the latter. This was reflected in the final section of the event when the whole group was asked to vote individually on a whole set of scenarios – supporting big buildings was not a priority, funding individual artists and projects came out consistently as the way arts funding should be directed in future.

This may have been a result of a process of self-selection at this sort of event – debates about arts funding naturally attract people disaffected by the status quo. Or it may have been down to the winning arguments of the panelists, especially Susan Jones’ repeated emphasis that “there is no art without artists” and that both “the artist” and “the audience” aren’t separate, stable, solid entities, we are all “just people”.

Either way, it was striking how different our priorities were compared to the way arts funding is distributed presently. While I still left the event feeling slightly dissatisfied – as a non-artist, much of the debate felt a bit insular – it was clear that it really would be a different world if we “asked the audience”.

Ask The Audience took place on Wednesday 12 February at The Carriageworks Theatre, Leeds

This article was amended on 19 February. Paragraph four previously stated that the marketing officer was from ‘a ballet company’. This has been changed to ‘dance agency, Yorkshire Dance’.