During most of 2011, whilst developing the ideas and content of an essay on future models for the public arts sector (at the time called Kick Out The Jams, now published as Fireworks) I took a few tours around the UK to meet the people who are wrestling with the same questions. What do we do, why do we do it, who are our audiences, how do we balance the books, is funding good or bad? Simple, easy to answer questions like that. The Barbican has gone through a major reinvention over the past decade and since it’s Chief Operating & Financial Officer – Sandeep Dwesar – has been in the thick of it all the way, there was no question that we should talk.
Sandeep began his career as a qualified accountant, working with a number of multinationals in the UK and Europe before consulting on a several local government projects. He joined the Barbican in 1999 and was appointed COO in 2008. Sandeep is also a trustee of Punchdrunk, homeless charity Friends of Baale Mane and and the Design Council. So, in April 2011 I took the train from Windsor to London, had a cup of coffee on the Barbican’s lovely riverside terrace and dropped in to Sandeep’s office to have this conversation.
So how is the Barbican doing?
The Barbican’s doing alright. Our box office is holding up very well – and in point of fact we’ve had some pretty terrific successes. That side of the business is strong and in the last financial year it beat our budgeted expectations, so everything is pretty good on that score. Our commercial income streams are probably suffering a little bit more, and I guess that’s more around things like conferencing and banqueting, because corporates are spending less on the frills, if you will, all around conferencing. So, that side of the business is not quite as good.
Did you find that businesses used it because of its convenience or did they sort of buy into the brand of holding their events at the Barbican?
No, I think that’s one of the things we’re really looking into. Traditionally, and wrongly in my view, we have sold the conference and banqueting business as something which is quite separate from Barbican, the brand Barbican, the arts organisation. So we have a pretty solid bedrock of clients who come in year in, year out, to have their AGMs or universities that come in to do their graduations. We have a suite of conference rooms on the 4th floor of the Barbican, and that, and sort of letting out our venues, the hall largely, and to some extent the theatre, every now and then when we’re not using it for arts purposes I mean, is a good income generator for us.
For people might not know much about the Barbican or might not know much about you, how would you describe your role here?
Well, I am the Chief Operating Financial Officer for the Barbican and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Just by way of background, what’s happening is the Guildhall School, which is a Conservatoire and Drama School – it’s building a new theatre and concert hall just around the corner. That’s acted as a catalyst for the Barbican, the School and the LSO to work much more closely together and, in point of fact, to work at creating a new cultural quarter – of a world class arts centre, Conservatoire and an orchestra.
and this was factored into your recent Arts Council increase …..
No. Well, it was up to a point. But this started about 3 years ago, and essentially when we have all the venues together they will be the richest collection of venues in Europe probably. So my job is to make sure that the business models of the two organisations are aligned, you know, so we work much more closely together and collaboratively together. We use the venues in the best possible way, so in other words, the right thing in the right venue. In addition to that what we’ve done is we’ve created a Creative Learning division which is looking at our Education Outreach programme, which is becoming much more important to us than has been in the past. No, that’s the wrong way of putting it actually. It’s something we can do a lot more with together, I think, as organisations. So, my role is to build not just a coherent business model across the organisations, but also to create a common platform of activities to support that, to make it all happen. I am also responsible for generating all the non-arts income, so the commercial income streams – catering, car parks – all the stuff that goes with any kind of venue really.
How would you define and describe the Barbican’s business model?
Well, the Barbican is an arts organisation, and everything we do is there to support that. So our strategic objective isn’t simply to have a conference or something like that. Our strategic objective is to sweat the organisation as much as possible so that we can invest in the art, into our programming. Taking that forward, essentially we have, in very broad terms, three big income streams. The artistic income stream, through the box office, which is then obviously supplemented by any kind of fund raising that we do, our development function. The second major income stream is through the hire of our venues, so venue, corporate events, banqueting, that sort of thing. The third major income stream is the secondary income, which is driven by audiences and visitors to the centre. So, it’s more about doing, getting good public catering, it’s more about service, audience, delivering good service to audiences. So those are the three legs, as it were, of our business model, and that’s really what supports us.
Do you think people use the Barbican as a standalone venue, somewhere they would just come to because they like coming to the Barbican, whether they’re seeing a show or not?
We get some of that. I don’t think we are a destination venue, in as much as say the South Bank or Tate Modern would be, because of our location. So I’m not going to get hundreds of thousands of people because we’re on the river front – we’re in the middle of the financial district of London, so you won’t get tens of thousands of people traipsing here. But of course, we do get people who do come here because they rather like the environment and we even get coach parties of people who come here occasionally.
Do you think that this rather curious location for an arts venue, like you said, being dwarfed and surrounded by the financial district, do you think that has a positive impact on your end product? Does it influence at all in terms of what you’re making?
I think the Barbican’s location and the fact that it is in a financial district – but also, let’s not forget in a great big residential estate – these are huge quirks, and inevitably they have an impact, they are almost in our DNA, subconsciously, so they do have an impact on who we are and what we do, that’s inevitable. I think that an obvious negative is that London’s financial district is not necessarily the first place that people would come to, or think of coming to, for an arts venue. So I think the strength of the Barbican actually in attracting audiences has been the quality of its arts programme, and that is driving audiences here in a big way. I think on the positive side, also what’s happening is that our relationships with neighbouring organisations and really the sort of enlivening area, I mean the East End quarter, the whole of this area, has really been bubbling up over the last decade or so and I think that sort of thing‘s helping and it’s beginning to have a multiplier effect. So, I think all of those things are helping.
How does the organisation ‘the Barbican’ work as an organism? Is there a meeting culture where ideas are crossing over, or is everybody in their own areas? Because it’s quite difficult with big organisations sometimes to have that fluidity …
Well, that’s right. I think the advantage we have is we’re a pretty democratic organisation in that everyone, people have voices and opinions, and they are listened to and debated. But essentially, there are also clear cut responsibilities. So, Louise Jefferies is our Director of Programming. Nick Kenyon is the Managing Director, with direct responsibility for everything. But clearly Nick is an old hand, is very much part of the programming decision making process. We have very talented heads of the various art forms and I am sure that one of the key things that have helped the Barbican get where it is, is all the debate around what we are going to do. So these are discussed by all the art forms, it isn’t the case of individual art forms working on their own, you know, the whole artistic plan is talked through, debated. So, if something is happening in the gallery I am sure someone from theatre will have an opinion on it, that sort of thing.
I remember reading in John Tusa’s book Engaged With The Arts, where he talks about the transition of the Barbican over the last 10 or 15 years. What’s your view of it?
Well, that’s been huge, yes. The Barbican has gone through a number of stages in it’s life, and the big change when John took over this place was that it was very much a receiving house, first of all. So, the Barbican was responsible for its own theatre and the RSC performed 12 months in the year. The Barbican didn’t run the galleries within the spaces, they were part of a separate department of the City of London and in the concert hall, the Barbican did about 30 odd concerts and the bulk of them were rentals and they were the LSO. So actually, if you think about it, the only bit that was Barbican programming were the cinemas and even then, in large part, that is driven by what is being made. So actually, you’ve got precious little income risk, precious little investment risk, and actually no clear, coherent artistic identity. And so that model over the next 10 or 12 years or so changed completely, to the extent that the Barbican runs its own theatre programme, decides what it wants to bring together here and in some instances invests and builds the product. Similarly in the concert hall we do 90 plus concerts of our choosing, our making, our working with artists and so on.
Do you think that ownership of the artistic programme then ripples through in terms of a sense of positivity in the organisation?
Oh, completely. Because without that, I think it wouldn’t be the Barbican’s reputation because the Barbican wouldn’t be the artistic player, it would have been the RSC, or it would have been the LSO, or still is the LSO, and anybody else. I think what’s happened in the last few years is that the Barbican has built its own artistic identity, its own clear strategy of where it wants to go and that is what’s built it’s reputation and also brought audiences here. There is a sort of Barbican imprimatur, if you will, on activity that’s happening at the Barbican, it has that.
What would you say the Barbican is doing, what is the point of the Barbican?
What is the point of the Barbican – art! Gosh, that is a very simple and very complicated question – “what is the point of the Barbican”…. I think the point of the Barbican is to make art happen, to enable things to happen that perhaps, possibly either wouldn’t happen anywhere else. To add to the cultural richness of the city in the very many different ways that we do it. I’ll probably be taken to task on this but, for instance, I think the biggest change that we’ve made, one of the big changes that we’ve made in the Barbican has been the audiences that come here. 15 years ago our audiences were, shall we say, of a certain age ..
I think that’s a pretty universal problem, isn’t it?
Well, that’s right.. You know, from certain socio-economic background and almost entirely white. And, as I say, very traditional. We have really (because of the nature of the programme) brought in new audiences, different people to the centre and engaged with the community. I don’t think we’ve gone nearly far enough as an organisation, but I think we’ve actually taken very big steps in that direction. So, to try and blend in within the cultural identity of London is something that I think the Barbican has, IS succeeding in, hasn’t succeeded, is succeeding in…
I know a lot of venues wrestle with that same problem of an aging audience, or a particular type of audience. For example, only attracting 16 year olds through deep engagement workshops but not necessarily translating to pay for audience members. But obviously, for an organisation the size of the Barbican, to make that leap, did you lose audience members at the same time, was there a dip and then an up?
I don’t think that has happened at all. I think that we have had some people who probably, for example, were very focussed on the Royal Shakespeare company, so the departure of the Royal Shakespeare Company has clearly meant that some of that audience has left the building. People do come back, but there is a sort of “hang on a minute, we really just wanted their theatre”. I’d like to think that many of those people still come here, but in addition to that I think a lot of new people have come also, who probably wouldn’t have come in the past. And that’s been a big change, I think.
A couple of funding questions – I know everyone’s talking about funding at the minute, but, there are two things I wanted to ask. Firstly, what’s your take on the Arts Council’s quite obvious change in emphasis? They’ve obviously refocused and changed their direction and made quite a quantum leap in how they’re seeing their role in arts organisations, and I wondered what you thought about it?
Well, I think first of all going back to the cuts themselves clearly there have been cuts across all public services and the arts council are put in an incredibly difficult position and I don’t think they could have come out with an answer which would have been right. In the sense that you’ve got to go one way or the other, so they could never have come up with an answer that everyone would have accepted en masse in the right direction. Inevitably if you have been cut – and particularly if you’ve had your funding removed entirely – then, you know, I’ve seen words as “disgraceful”, “despicable”, “appalling” and all the rest of it.
On the other hand and completely the other side of it, there have been people who have had substantial increases in funding and one or two of the ventures that I’ve seen where funding has been materially increased has been entirely desired and quite incredible organisations who really, really need to be recognised. So they’ve made their decision. I think it’s very early days to make serious comment about the direction of the Arts Council as I think the numbers were only announced last week and I think it needs to feed through the waters precisely that they have funded. In other words, the organisations whose funding has materially increased, there are very very few, what is it that’s been rewarded? As far as the major organisations are concerned there’s been fairly standard sort of cut really, which in most of the cases in large houses is not unexpected. I know for a fact that they’ve been contingency planning for this for some years now, so I don’t think anyone within the major arts organisations is going to say ‘oh my god, that’s appalling or that’s unfair’ given the fact that all the other things are happening.
Do you think the movement is positive just in itself?
Well first of all, why waste a good crisis! I think arts organisations will fare differently depending upon how they’ve been affected. For example, if you are an arts organisation where let’s say 40% of your funding is public and (for the sake of argument) 10% is cut from your budget, that could be quite substantial as most arts organisations are marginal, they work around the margins. It’s substantial, but it doesn’t mean that you’re going to fall over. That is quite different from say 50 or 60% cuts, which some organisations are experiencing. I think the larger organisations will have contingency plans, but for the smaller organisations I think it could well be a radical change, however this is how I think in the longer term things are going to be, a great deal tighter and the bounds between Public and private funding needs to change for all organisations. So we need to begin to look more radically at our business models to see how we can generate more income, because if your income is falling you can always reduce your costs – and any bloody fool can cut a budget – as the chief finance officer of this organisation if I’ve got a £3 million cut and I cut my arts budget by 3 million pounds, job done I can put my feet up. But that’s obtuse, so the challenge for us is to think “ok our fundings been cut by £3 million, now how do we generate £3 million from somewhere else”. That’s the challenge I think for everybody.
I think that within that there is some refreshing positivity. One of the things we’ve been talking about increasingly is what happens if the arts sector becomes wholly independent and actually finds the golden egg of the business model that works, so that there is no longer any need for funding, apart from when you say “we’d like some for this because we think this is fitting with some of your agendas anyway”. It’s interesting to try and model it in to your head, a sense of how it would work.
I think that is incredibly challenging and very difficult for any major arts organisation. I mean, let’s take the United States for example, there is very substantial funding, albeit coming from private giving, it is none the less a very big funding stream. We are nowhere near that and probably won’t be near that for perhaps 10, 15 years, a generation, but I think we can certainly look at ways of making more money using our creativity. The question that you asked me about if people come here for the venue because they think it is the Barbican, or whether it is simply a conferencing venue and I said that they come to the venue, they don’t come to the Barbican. That’s our weakness as an organisation, I think what we need to do is to say hey guys come here, we’re a big, terrific, creative organisation. We can do things with you in your activity in perhaps a more interesting and creative way, and that’s something I think that perhaps we need to begin to work to. Maybe other organisations already are.
What do you think generates that, it interests me in terms of public arts venues, in that there is this real issue of trying to make a business which doesn’t need funding full stop. For example The Firestation is a considerably smaller venue than the Barbican, but essentially doing that same kind of stuff and dealing with the same questions, and we’re doing fairly well. We’re only three years old, but were generating some surpluses and things are happening, we’re commissioning new work and we’re thinking this is pretty good. We’ve got to where we want to get to quite quickly, but even with our sales – as a progressive fairly youthful organisation with a different take on the business model, fairly entrepreneurial – if we suddenly had to pay rent on our building or if the Borough removed the subsidy that they give us it just wouldn’t work. But I don’t think we’re doing anything wrong. What do you think causes that?
Well the reality is that organisations which are building based as it were, there very substantial costs that are soaked by that. So if you looked at the businesses of say the Royal Opera House, National Theatre, Southbank Centre, us, many millions of pounds just simply go to the upkeep of the building and that before we’ve done anything. The income that we generate from arts programmes – which in many instances is not sufficient to cover the programming costs let alone cover that, because much of the art is subsidised – is simply not sufficient to do that, so the question isn’t “are we doing anything wrong?” The question is “can we make more from the assets we have?” Now it’s never going to be a business, because if it was a business then you know, well gosh, you’d think why don’t we get investors to invest in The Firestation. If we could make alot of money out of The Firestation and do the same activity, then you could legitimately go ask a 3rd person and say “put a couple of hundred thousand in there”, buy a stake in it and all the rest of it. That isn’t the way the model works.
Do you think there is a disparity between the expectations/needs of arts professionals and the purses of their audiences? I’ve been watching the recent National Ballet documentaries, in particular the ones where they talk about better pay conditions for their dancers – and they’re on pretty small incomes, but when you then track those costs back to the timed estimate to put a production together versus how much people will pay for a ticket, there is quite obviously an imbalance. Do you think there is an imbalance there?
I think that this is incredibly complicated and actually in some cases very loaded. In my experience there are so many people working in the arts for very little money and even when you reach fairly high into the profession, even when your recognised as someone who is delivering very high quality art, even then the kind of money your making can be pretty pathetic. So there is a real commitment, that you get into this for the same reason as someone might get into nursing or something which is bloody hard work, really huge amounts of self sacrifice for precious little reward. So don’t get into the arts to make money, and that’s tough. There is no answer to that. You will get audiences that completely understand that, but there is also a huge amount of ignorance about the arts. There is a perception that if you said “ok we want the arts to completely pay for themselves” then actually most, not some, but most of what we have around us would simply not exist. You would still get some terrific things, but the richness, the cultural richness would disappear and I feel quite strongly about something like that, because as a nation this is one of the absolutely strongest pillars upon which our economy stands. There is huge amount of value here which is perhaps sometimes not recognised.
We mentioned the Arts Council review and the change of direction and that there is a tangible change of mood in the arts sector. Do you feel there is a change in the mood in how people perceive the area that they work in? How is the Barbican responding to that?
Well I think there is a change in mood, the Barbican is funded by the City of London and the Barbican’s funding has been cut significantly in the last few years, even before these cuts came into place. The Barbican’s funding has been in decline and the level of cuts we’ve experience is not dissimilar to the cuts that have been experienced by other arts organisations, and that’s on top of cuts we’ve had over the past few years.
So the mood in the barbican is very much one of, we completely get the broader financial picture of it, there’s no point complaining about it. I think 2 or 3 years ago we would have screamed about something like this, now there’s no point, no one’s going to listen. It’s really about what we can do to help ourselves and that is very much the mood at the Barbican at the moment. It’s not simply a case of telling City that we’re appalled and we don’t want to play with them anymore, or for the larger arts organisations to say that to that Arts Council. I think we just have to get on with it.
What are the easy wins for the Barbican and what are the hard sells?
The hard sells: the challenge for us is to build our income streams and we are aware we’re doing it in competition with very many people. When we go up there and ask for money from funders we are doing it with everybody else doing the same, but to build a greater dynamism within our non arts income streams, in particular our commercial income streams, that’s the toughest task for the Barbican. What’s going to be easier is, I’m not sure anything is going to be particularly easy, but I think that the challenge for us is simply going to be to build on our reputation and to do new things, to reinvent ourselves in the arts.
Is there a conflict between the organisations commercial aspirations and its artistic aspirations?
On the whole no, we actually manage that extremely well – the balance of activity – and we’ve done that by recognising that the commercial activity is there to deliver the arts activity. Rather than equating them together, there not on-par as it were. I think it’s almost inevitable that we will be questioning ourselves as to whether, particularly on the programming front, we should perhaps be doing more commercial programming than we have in the past. That is the debate that I’m sure will happen.
What developments either within the organisation or in the rest of the world excite you at the minute?
I think that one of the fascinating things is particularly in the last few years, and there is almost a multiplier effect, is there has been a real sense that the world is genuinely shrinking. What always interests me whenever I travel abroad, is that people always know what is going on in the UK and sometimes know what’s going on at the Barbican! There are people who are beginning to ape what we do and actually say we want to be a bit like you, which is really exciting but what there also doing is their bringing new and innovative ideas into their own cultures and I think that’s all beginning to come together in a really exciting way. I do a bit of teaching in India for example, there is a cultural leadership programme there and what’s really exciting is that with very tiny amounts of money lots of ideas are bubbling around. People are struggling with great ideas and some of them, one can see them developing and coming to different parts of the world and I think that’s beginning to happen in the emerging economies. In East Asia particularly there has been a resurgence in looking at the arts and looking at creativity. Similarly in China, I think those things are going to bubble up and impact upon us and people want to learn from things we do and bring their own ideas. It’ll be interesting to see if those ideas begin to influence our ideas and I think there’s a story there a few years down the line.
What’s the future for large scale public arts organisations? We’ve touched on this already, but one of the concepts that we’re developing, we’ve labelled Massive Diversification for the time being, asks what happens if arts venues take this notion of mixed economy and take it to a hyper level. We’re asking, particularly in a venue as big as the Barbican where you’ve got the space, can we diversify into having, say a greengrocers downstairs? Can we have a chemist? Can we produce things that are not at first glance related to our artistic output in an attempt to attract people to use our venues because they fit with their whole lives. Should our arts organisations diversify that extensively as long as it’s serving the ultimate mission to benefit the arts? I would be interested to know your thoughts on it because a lot of what you talk about in terms of revenue streams and economic models resonates with that.
I think that each arts organisation needs to ask itself that question, but I think there is the danger of becoming the Tesco of the arts and trying to be all things to all people, because I think somewhere along the line you will lose yourself. I think where the arts organisation can use its core skills to attract audiences, that is potentially a winwin. So the answer to that is yes, organisations like ours need to think how we can use our spaces in more creative ways to generate more income but I think the winwin is where it is compatible with all the other things we do. I think if we decided to become a sort of supermarket, then I think it probably wouldn’t be of huge benefit because if I put a greengrocer in there, I know for a fact there is another greengrocer a few hundred yards down the line or something I think we can actually make a war. By using our creative services and our skills I think that’s more beneficial, it’s probably more productive financially and in terms of our overall objectives.
I noticed that the South Bank has now, I presume, leased out its front row/road to chains
I think their model is entirely different. I mean, they are on the riverfront and there is a huge passing trade so it is entirely different and we could never copy that, because it would never work in here. So we have to do what we have to do, which is rely upon our creativity to perhaps build either retail, which I think we need to do more of, but something which works with us, you know which is us, rather than opening a sweet shop downstairs.
You can find out more about the Barbican here
Dan Eastmond is MD of Firestation Arts & Culture and blogs here
You can download Fireworks; 21st Century Aesthetics, Exploding Culture and Massive Diversification in Public Arts here