The culture vultures come out at night
Measuring the success of Culture Night – and some thoughts about the price of free
They’re queuing around the block to get into Meeting House Square for the Arena live radio broadcast. More people have probably turned up to see Jeanette Lowe’s Pearse House: Village in the City exhibition at the National Photographic Archive in Temple Bar in the space of an hour than saw it since it opened at the start of August. There’s a gaggle of people standing patiently outside the Oxfam shop on Parliament Street for the Nighthawks’ cabaret.
Everywhere you went in the centre of Dublin last Friday night, you saw hundreds of people rushing around armed with Culture Night brochures attempting to see and experience as much as they could. The scene was probably repeated in many cities and towns up the country.
It’s a fabulous occasion, especially when you’re in an area like Temple Bar in the heart of the city which is usually full of drinkers rather than culture-seekers at this time of night. Culture Night reclaims the streets in some ways and shows you can put on stuff which will attract thousands who want to do something simply more than knock back ales. You begin to wonder why there can’t be similar initiatives every month or why this kind of experience isn’t even a weekly option for these people and the many families who flock to the city-centre.
This, though, is where things get interesting and questions begin to emerge about our real engagement with culture and how we value same. Culture Night is about sampling, an annual big night out to show existing and prospective culture-goers what is available all around them. The hope is that these people will then come back on another occasion and become regulars.
After all, the vast majority of buildings which are open on Culture Night are open all year-round, albeit not in the evenings, and admission is usually also free on those occasions. Sure, it’s great to have a big event once a year to remind us what’s out there, but surely this doesn’t mean that many confine their engagement with culture and the arts to that one night? Aren’t these thousands of people also out looking for events and experiences the other 51 weeks of the year? Or do they stay at home and watch TV? Or, indeed, do these galleries, museums and institutions need to change their opening times?
Then, there’s the perception around culture and the arts and the price of “free”. One of the reasons why Culture Night works is that everyone knows it’s free. It’s a very successful selling point – it’s free so there’s nothing to complain about, as the sub-head in this newspaper’s report on the event on Saturday morning put it – and it means it probably attracts people who might otherwise pass up on the occasion. After all, admission prices for a family group do add up to a fair chunk of change when that money is also needed for food, mortgage/rent/property tax and other bills.
But, as we’ve seen with the ongoing debate around Arthur’s Day, the Arthur Guinness Projects and general funding of the arts, the money has to come from somewhere to pay for such events. Yes, there’s money from the taxes you and I pay – such funding keeps many of the buildings and institutions open, though some would inevitably argue that such funding should go on the work as opposed to the venues – but that’s not enough to fund everything, which is where corporate sponsorship, philanthropy, patronage and plain old ticket flogging come into the equation. Unless, of course, we think that all arts and culture should be free and the people involved should do so because of their passion and enthusiasm for what they’re doing. It may be different where you live, but I don’t think passion and enthusiasm alone pay the bills. And let’s not go down the route marked “hobby” or “part-time”.
Funding the arts, as all of the pieces linked to above show, is a hot button issue. He who pays the piper most definitely calls the tune, which is why you’ve had the the Arthur Guinness Projects’ marketing slam-dunk. They demanded – and got – free social media PR from would-be grant applicants in the form of an online beauty contest, something we hadn’t seen before with arts sponsorship in Ireland and which might become the norm given its success. It’s clear, as we’ve seen with the shilly-shallying and can-kicking-down-the-road going on over alcohol sponsorship for sports’ events, that the goverment would probably happily outsource arts funding to the private sector and to hell with the consequences.
We’ve heard from both funders and artists many times already about this issue, but you have to wonder what the audience, existing and prospective, make of all this. Are we the audience prepared to pay for culture and arts or to simply lap it up when it comes to us for free? Do we the audience ever wonder about the costs involved in putting on a show or do we the audience just fume at the final ticket price (I heard a lot of fuming in the last few days about prices for Dublin Fringe shows this year, for example)? Are we the audience happy to call ourselves arts and culture fans as long as it doesn’t cost us a bean? Are we the audience prepared to unpick and parse what commercial sponsorship means for an event or are we the audience just happy to see big acts playing for free in our local beerhouse one day a year?
It’s a huge, complex issue, but one which nights like Culture Night push to the top of the agenda in an indirect manner. For all the great success of the event – and it’s a brilliant, hugely popular initiative – it may well promote a notion that it ticks a box. But like a dog and Christmas, culture is not just for one night a year. And it can’t always be free because those who produce the show, event, performance or exhibition need to get paid too. Fulll disclosure: I ended Culture Night happily spending €7.90 on culture for a screening of In A World.. in the IFI. Money definitely well spent.