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The Big Interview: Andrew Comben, CEO of Brighton Dome and Festival
You receive a substantial amount of public funding. Do you feel there is pressure to provide a programme for everybody?
Pressure wouldn’t be the way to put it. We receive significant funding from both the Arts Council and Brighton and Hove City Council. Both are long standing supporters.
But more than anything I would like to think that their support comes because our agenda is matching theirs. That is that the arts should be available to as many people as possible and that’s an excellent starting point.
It’s not so much about programming so that the subsidy reaches the maximum number of people. It’s more about thinking why we bring this work and who is it for. I think we have an audience that is more engaged with the arts than anywhere else in the country. It is our duty to provide events which are challenging, varied, inspiring and interesting. That’s what I enjoy doing.
Last year we saw political protests at both The Jerusalem Quartet and Batsheva Dance Ensemble performances. Do you go out to book controversial acts to spark debate? How important is it that their work is seen and heard?
Neither the Jerusalem Quartet or Batsheva Ensemble were programmed because they are controversial, that wasn’t the point. They are great artists and that was our starting point.
I maintain that an arts festival and more widely an arts organisation is a space where difficult conversations can happen more easily than in any other public forum and artists are a contributor to that conversation. So we need to be as open as possible and listen to what artists are saying and what they contribute.
As an arts organisation we have no political agenda and I think that is important. However, at the same time we accept that the arts is involved in politics as much as anything else in daily life.
Is the role of the festival to bring international talent into Brighton, or nurture local performers?
We absolutely have a responsibility to promote home-grown talent. But also, one of the great things about being an international festival is that we bring performers from all over the world to the city.
We are very mindful that we have to keep an eye on what the rest of the world is doing and make sure we bring the best back to Brighton.
Every second year we host a programme called Caravan which is about promoting the best home talent. We invite promoters from around the world to showcase the best of what we have to offer.
So we do have a responsibility yes. But I think it is a very delicate balancing act and we go out of our way to make sure we are achieving that.
When deciding on the programme, do you schedule shows that you know will be popular or is it about putting on what you think people should be seeing?
I think that the longer you are in a place the better you get to know what people. I feel that the Dome and Festival is very much part of the community and I’d like to think that gives us a good sense of what people will enjoy. But I think there is something about leading as well as following. The point of a festival like ours is to explore what’s new and a lot of what we do is brand new and commissioned by us so literally nobody seen it until our audience has.
There is a risk attached with that but it wouldn’t be worth it if there wasn’t.
Working with artists is an entirely risk based process. It’s our job to support people who are creating something and the process of creating something can mean something extraordinary or could be something that doesn’t quite work. I really enjoy that part of the job but sometimes it doesn’t work out.
The Fringe is running for four weeks for the first time this year and is now the biggest arts event in the country. What is your working relationship like, do you view them as direct competition and is it possible for you both to enjoy success?
I think it’s impossible to have a strong Festival without a strong Fringe. And likewise, we they cannot have a successful Fringe without us.
The Fringe is enormous in the number of shows it puts on and part of its great selling point is that it is un-curated and very much open access. As a result it is a very different event to what we put together.
So you are getting a different experience from both and I think that audiences know that and they support us equally.
The Fringe is also a fantastic fertile environment for up and coming artists and that is great for us in spotting future acts. So no, I don’t see them as competition and we have a very close working relationship with them.
I think that we can both be successful together and in fact when we work together we are much stronger than the sum of our parts.
Are ticket prices too high?
That is something we are really conscious of – especially given the current financial climate. I believe that the arts should be for everyone not just the wealthy or those who have been involved from an early age.
It’s too easy to presume that events are not accessible. There are 154 events at this year’s Festival, 122 of them have ticket prices of £10 or less and there are 22 free events. I actually think it is extraordinary value for what we present.
However we think it is very important and they should be challenged. We will continue to do everything to make sure we keep them down.
Would you ever think of ditching the big name guest directors in order to bring prices down?
We don’t really pay a fee for the guest directors. They do it for the love of doing it and the privilege and honour that comes with it.
So they don’t actually inflate the cost of the festival. Of course, there is the cost of putting on their events but I think the benefits far outweigh any negative impact and generate far more than we could without them.
Some guest directors have been more involved than others. Do you think it is more important to have a big name or someone who contributes?
I think the guest director is a hugely positive thing and I feel that it has really made the Festival what it is today.
I agree with you that some have been more visible than others and the one you are referring to – Aung San Suu Kyi - was only just out of house arrest at the time. It was a statement and the empty chair symbolism is something that people connected with.
My feeling is that they are each individuals and the point of that role is to reflect their individuality.
Michael Rosen will be very much around. He is appearing in I think 10 events and will be popping up and producing a lot more, He’s incredibly enthusiastic about the programme and people are going to get to know him a lot more.
With cuts being made across society, how can you justify your public funding when the likes of the NHS and schools are losing out?
I think it is a really important issue. But the arts is not an added luxury or an added extra. It benefits wider society in a really tangible way and I think we see that more here than anywhere.
I don’t think that it’s a natural equation. If we are in a society that values certain things then amongst those things needs to be the arts and culture. Some of the work I’m most proud of is the stuff that doesn’t get talked about such as working with people at risk of offending or at a low level of social inclusion. Our learning programme reaches something like 15,000 people a year and that stuff to me is what makes it absolutely clear that the arts has a role to play in everyone’s daily life. So I don’t think it’s fair that people say when the chips are down the arts should be the one to go.
We must acknowledge that we all need to take the proportional cuts which are being made across the board. But for goodness sake don’t say it doesn’t matter, because if you ask our audience it really does. That is what makes me want to come into work every morning. Not to provide some fluffy entertainment but to do stuff that really makes a difference. I think the arts has demonstrated that time and time again in this city and I’m proud to be a part of that.
What has been your favourite Festival moment?
Gosh, there are so many but a few spring to mind. Dream Think Speak’s Before I Sleep in the old Co-op building and Hofesh Shechter’s Political Mother were two works which we really created and seeing them for the first time and seeing the audience going for them was great. And the other was from the 2009 festival when we put the C-Curve on the South Downs.
I think that has to be most iconic romantic thing I have been involved in. It was sort of ludicrous to take an enormous stainless steel structure up the top of a hill and plonk it there but I think it was something like 12,000 people who went to see it.
So yeah those three stick in my mind firmly. But hopefully this year will add even more.
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