Taking price discrimination to the limits

When do I get to go backstage?The Guardian reports:

While the high price of theatre tickets is well known, it still comes as a surprise to discover that some members of the audience for Arrivals & Departures, the latest play by Alan Ayckbourn, may have paid £1,500 for the privilege. This is the price of the ultimate luxury package on offer from the Stephen Joseph theatre in Scarborough; there are others on offer for £750. The £1,500 ticket involves access to rehearsals, backstage tours, Q and A sessions with Ayckbourn, as well as a seat at the finished play, about a blundering army unit trying to catch a terrorist at a railway station.

The theatre says the move was driven by economic necessity. Following cumulative cuts in subsidy of 18% in recent years, it makes sense to seek a greater contribution to the box office from those who might be able to pay it. The Production Syndicate, as this scheme is called, has so far raised more than £30,000. Even so, the result is that, at some performances, the amounts paid by different members of the audience will vary from £13 (the cheapest concession) to £1,500. This is even more than the difference between economy and first class on an aeroplane.

The theatre might have said this was driven by economic necessity, but why wait for that? Arts presenters offer an experience for which the willingness-to-pay for luxury extras is going to vary quite widely. The very rich value experiences beyond the ordinary. If a museum or theatre or orchestra can offer such an experience, at reasonably low marginal cost (it does not require a major investment to allow a few rich patrons into rehearsals, or to give them a tour backstage), then why not? These funds allow the company to keep other prices in check, and to have unrestricted funding for productions or other activities (say, outreach into schools, for example).

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  1. says

    The problem with this concept is that arts organization become dominated by the rich and reflect their socio-political perspectives, tastes, and abilities to pay. This is reflected in the high prices for subscriptions for good seats. At the Met, for example, donors are given priority sales before subscriptions are put on the open market. After they buy their subscriptions, few of the best seats are left. The entry level donation for priority seating is beyond middle class incomes, especially when the high prices of the subscriptions are added to it. Should non-profit arts institutions privilege the wealthy in this way? Should only the wealthy be able to afford the best seats?

    As you mentioned in a recent post, nothing comes free. What price do we pay for orienting our arts institutions around the wealthy? How does this system compare to Europe where the best seats for orchestra concerts and operas can be paid for with middle class incomes, and where the demographic of participation is far wider?

  2. Opus says

    This is an interesting topic and one that is bound to generate much debate in arts administrators.

    A problem with this methodology is that it doesn’t strike the appropriate balance between contributed and earned revenue for the arts organization. Many arts organizations offer backstage tours, access to rehearsals, meet and greets with artists, or plenty of other benefits to incentivize giving levels to maximize contributed revenue. The higher an organization’s contributed revenue, the lower the dependency on earned revenue (ticket sales, specifically here) become. By folding these bargaining chips as a method to sell more expensive seats, it furthers the elitist perception of many arts organizations while undermining the efforts of an effective fundraising team. The idea of offering these benefits to donors is not a new one and should be strategically used to maximize revenue for the specific purpose of keeping ticket costs low so that arts organizations can remain focused on their missions of providing arts opportunities to their entire communities, not just those who can pay top dollar.

  3. Laura says

    When did the mission of arts institutions become chained to the ideology of social equality? There is the problem. Arts institutions should have one mission, and that is the production of art at its very finest. Social equality is a separate problem, and most likely one that will never be solved. We are deluded indeed if we expect our artists to solve it. They are struggling for survival. If the wealthy are willing and able to make the art possible, as they have throughout history, then so be it. If we cannot afford to attend as often as we like, or to sit in the box seats, then let our ambition be to set up our children so that they will have that privilege. Here is the other side of the same problem. We expect something as high in value as art to be immediately affordable. We either don’t understand its true value or we don’t like its actual cost.
    Let the artist focus on ensuring that art at its most excellent will survive for our children to see, and for the next generation of artists when it’s their turn. Art is not democratic. It’s meritocratic — for the artist and for the patron.

    Also, high art has always represented the interaction between the values of the artist, often from humble origins and embracing “progressive” ideas, and those of the wealthy patron. It has produced a rich heritage of art that we all know and love. What has been produced to reflect the democratic patronage of the public at large? Actually, YouTube sensation Justin Bieber represents just that. We already have channels for the democratic filter of art. If we sacrafice our high art institutions to the same ideology, then we risk someday having only Justin Biebers.

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