The mighty guardians of the arts in the United Kingdom - Arts Council England - have been, of late, making a big push into what they would probably describe as the digital realm. For ACE it's all digital all the time. It's like the internet has just been invented.

Step forward the funding monolith's new chairman Peter Bazalgette with an op-ed piece in the London Evening Standard on November 4th extolling the virtues of said digital technology and how it's going to save the world, or something.

Facts have never been ACE's strong point and this trend continues in this particular piece under the watchful eye of their faux commander in chief.

He writes;

"Last year our National Theatre screened its superb live stage productions in 360 UK cinemas and 350 other venues around the world, with NT Live reaching an additional two million people."

Now, that sounds very impressive. Two Million people is, after all, a lot of people. The only problem is it's not really true. The National Theatre told us that the number is derived from ticket sales in cinemas for their relay shows but the "two million" figure was achieved over a period of the last four years, not last year alone as Mr Bazalgette implies.

He goes on;

"The Tate connected with two million people via social media and had the most popular website of any gallery or museum in Britain."

It would appear that a figure of "two million" is pretty much standard practice in the arts. The Tate does have over 970,000 followers on Twitter and over 620,000 on Facebook but those numbers don't really tell you much of anything.

The Tate is one of the most well known galleries in the country and is very well funded by public money so a lot of social media interest is to be expected. The level of interaction with their followers however is nothing spectacular.

Many Tweets receive, relatively speaking, only a few re-tweets (a reasonably good measure of how many people are listening to you) and the Facebook posts similarly receive relatively small amounts of interaction.

This is a problem experienced by everybody who uses social media. Getting people to follow you is one thing, getting them to pay attention is something else altogether. So, taking raw follower numbers at face value isn't really proof of anything.

The Tate was unable to provide Article19 with substantive evidence of how they arrived at the conclusion that their website was more popular than any other art gallery website in the UK.

A Long Con

If we look at the National Theatre and their live relay shenanigans Mr Bazalgette also leaves out a very key piece of information.

It's all very well for theatres with huge amounts of funding to beam their shows all over the country, and the world for that matter, for the masses to see but it doesn't really help anybody else. Such technology doesn't help anybody else because they can't afford to use it.

There is also a very real concern that showing hugely expensive productions in the regions, sans those companies having to get off their backsides and tour, could have a damaging impact on local theatre companies trying to get people to come to their "live" shows.

Why pay £20 to go and see a local company in the scruffy "regional" venue when you can pay £10 and watch the well-heeled companies do their thing in the far more comfortable multiplex?

The National Theatre probably spends more money relaying its work all over the country than most companies have to spend on their entire productions.

Never Ending Story

The points made above have always been the big problem for Arts Council England. It's all just so many words without ever addressing the reality on the ground for those whose level of funding does not extend into seven or eight figures on a yearly basis.

The funding monolith tackles every problem it encounters in only the most fundamental of ways without giving any thought to the bigger picture.

If the National Theatre can broadcast their shows into cinemas then technology must work for the benefit of the arts, right? If The Tate can get a lot of followers on Twitter and Facebook then social media is good for the arts, right? If Arts Council England can just put enough words in the right order then they must know what they are doing, right?

Unfortunately for ACE that's not how it works. Anybody paying even the slightest amount of attention to their day to day nonsensical yapping can pull them apart in very short order.

Not much of what ACE has done in the past can sustain any serious stress testing and Mr Balzagette's latest "media strategy 101" exercise is no different.

If you don't believe us, ask the people who work at The Point in the West Midlands. Well, they don't work there anymore because the £70Million art gallery has been shut down, again, this time for good. It's probably because they didn't have enough followers on Twitter, right?

[ Evening Standard Op-Ed ]