Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Putting a Price on Culture

Internationally acclaimed, playwriting debut, Matthew Perry, world premiere. 

Seeing these words scrawled across my email inbox made me ridiculously excited. I love the theatre, Matthew Perry is my favourite F.R.I.E.N.D.S (huge statement, I know), and the dad/boyfriend we wish we all had in 17 Again. This couldn't be a better combination of some of my favourite things. So, it was a huge disappointment to discover how painfully expensive it would be to go and see this show. With prices starting at £15, for restricted view of course, and it ranging from £40 to an extortionate £125 for a decent seat, it is elitist and unaffordable for so many. This is the price we're paying, or unable to pay, for culture and it's fast getting out of hand. From theatre to concerts to ballet to the cinema, we're seeing the price increase disproportionately, rapidly excluding huge proportions of the population. 

Culture as we know it has long been exclusive. Defined as "the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively" culture has been considered something for the most intelligent, most affluent and of the highest standing. You know, in the same way that owning a car used to be or going to university. So today, when large proportions of the population own/lease/drive a car in some capacity, and there are opportunities for people, irrespective of their socioeconomic, racial or religious background, why are cultural activities going the other way? Why, in a time and a place of greater accessibility, are we reducing access to culture? 

For Christmas a couple of years ago I bought my boyfriend tickets for us to go and see The Book of Mormon. I opted for the £50 tickets (£50 each, that is) - which was at the lower end of the price bracket, with top price seats setting you back £202. I wasn't sure whether I'd regret not forking out a bit more for the 'better seats' but, when we got there, my god was I glad I didn't. We had a perfect view. We could see the whole stage really well, but weren't so far away that the actors looked like tiny singing dots and had an aisle seat for extra leg room. So whilst I was relieved that we could enjoy the show and weren't constrained by my bank balance, it was infuriating that they were charging four times more for tickets that certainly wouldn't have increased my enjoyment fourfold. So how are we justifying 1) the price in the first place and 2) the disparity in the price of tickets? It's a similar situation with the cinema. The BFI revealed that the cost of a cinema ticket has increased by 26% in the last 5 years. Inflation has averaged 2.8% a year over the period, and I'm not sure why we are seeing cinema tickets increase in price by so much. The cost of seeing a film is one of the biggest deterrents - especially alongside the growth of Netflix, Google Play and other streaming and online services - and it's unjustified. Arguably the cost has gone up as a response to decreasing popularity, but it's creating a vicious cycle - one in which we may, one day, expect to see the end of cinemas. Culture is a privilege, reserved for the privileged. We're going backwards, and we're squeezing people out. The cinema is a treat; the gig ticket offset by cutting down elsewhere; the theatre a hobby enjoyed by the wealthy, London's tourists and those making the most of LastMinute offers. Culture is something we save up for, a significant outgoing, and something which are expectation are often, and reasonably, too high to meet. 

And this brings us to another important question: what value do we place on cultural experiences? Is the price tag indicative of the high value we place on it...or is it the opposite? Do we not consider it important enough to be made accessible? We like to sideline the arts in favour of more rigorous, more important things like science and technology and money. I can attend the Science Museum for free, but I'm paying £14 for a cinema ticket in Central London, or anywhere up to £250 for a theatre ticket - suggesting that my experience of science is valued substantially more than an artistic experience. I think this is ignorant. I was lucky enough to grow up in cultural communities, going from dance class to play rehearsal to singing lesson, and it has been more fundamental in shaping me than any hard, scientific experience. It opened up my imagination; it made me think, and try to understand, "what is it like to be them?"; it made me open up and express; it provided a space where being me, and where not being me, was ok; I learned about history, and music, and literature; it taught me about other people and other places in other times. The arts was a community which brought different people together, and introduced me to people I'd never otherwise have met. It provided a space to help people escape their own lives, build confidence, learn to move and be themselves, to speak - in public - as themselves and as others. It was a space for the majorities and the minorities: where the I met a boy with a stammer who learned and recited poetry to help him overcome it; where I helped look after a boy with learning difficulties who just wanted to move and sing; where I spent hours with little girls pointing their toes as much as they possibly could; where I met my friend who wanted nothing more than an escape for her own life; and where I met all the people who just love to sing and act and dance and express. And I can't put a price on that. 

I want to go to the museum and the theatre, and I want that for everyone - the millionaires in Knightsbridge, the children desperate to see Wicked and the elderly just about making ends meet on the old age pension. Cultural spaces are not just spaces for learning, but for experiencing, expressing and feeling. They make us want, encourage us to create, and learn to imagine. They are spaces we should value and make available for everyone, not price out the masses and exacerbate the exclusivity. 

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