Fighting for our creative future

It will come as no surprise to learn that, as the delirium of the Olympic Games becomes a fast-fading memory, the funding that the arts lost in order to help finance our successful sporting summer is not likely to be restored.

New culture secretary Maria Miller, in her first public proclamation last week, has already started talking about needing to cut public spending, invoking words like austerity and the fact that we need to cut the deficit.

While all this is true, we have to remember that the arts not only makes money, helping to boost our economy, it is also a seriously-effective morale booster and is a lot more cost-effective than the Olympics were.

Yes, we do need to cut our deficit, but we also need to invest in our society – we need to prepare for tomorrow. Otherwise why should we live here?

The arts play a vital role in our daily lives – music, theatre, film, fine art, photography, dance, television and crafts all have an important part to play and they are all being starved of funds. There is no more fat to be trimmed from the budget – now parts of the bone and the muscle are being sacrificed. Tough decisions are having to be made about what community and outreach programmes to cut in order to keep plays on stage, exhibitions on the wall and musicians on the concert platform.

Meanwhile, Maria Miller is talking up the potential windfalls to be gained from philanthropy. She is embracing philanthropy from the business community just when everyone in the world of regional arts has discovered that the notion just doesn’t work.

According to Maria, the arts world just needs to learn to get better at asking for money and everything will be all right. Mind you, she’s not advocating the arts world asks central government . . . because they have just reduced the Arts Council’s pot by �71 million – it’s now down to just under �450 million – and is about to hack off another �61 million before 2014.

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If you think this is a lot of money then think again. It is probably the smallest budget that any Government department has to work with. Also, it is a mere drop in the ocean when compared with the sums being juggled by social services, the MoD or work and pensions.

This cavalier attitude to the arts is bizarre when you watch their delighted reactions to the Olympics opening ceremonies or their anxious need to cuddle up to actors and musicians when they win Oscars, Brits, Grammys or any number of other international awards.

Where do they think this talent and creative expertise comes from? Do they really think it arrives fully formed? It takes years of training and discipline. It requires that your talent pool is drawn from the entire country and not just from London and the big cities. It requires that young actors, musicians and artists have the necessary grants to allow them to go and study, and that the training is there for them to access.

But, I suspect that the people with their eyes on the ledger don’t think about anything but reaching their own arbitrarily-set targets. Personally, I feel the best way to fund the arts would be to donate the salary of every MP with a second income. They would get a token amount from Westminster and could live off their second income.

This would mean that the Arts Council would be awash with funds and the increase in funding wouldn’t actually affect the treasury’s complex sums, because the money would have already been notionally allocated.

This would also encourage the culture secretary to think before she utters patronising advice like “arts organisations need to be better at asking, rather than receiving. The economic climate means we are going to have to continue to challenge ourselves about how much money is available. We are going to have to look at how we can unlock the potential in philanthropy.”

Just typing that fatuous sentence makes my blood boil all over again. If she is serious, then suggest how the system can work outside London. Regional arts organisations across various disciplines have tried to secure meaningful funding or sponsorship from cash-strapped private enterprise and it doesn’t appear to be there. It’s fine if you are the RSC or The Royal Ballet, when you have a world platform with which to broadcast the name of your sponsor and allow them to bask in your reflected glory.

If you are a regional gallery in East Anglia or a small theatre that is doing vital work supporting your community, then private enterprise is not so interested.

When confronted with the problems of funding regional arts, she talks in strange abstract terms that need interpretation. When confronted with the stark reality that philanthropy doesn’t really work if you are not a national organisation, she replies without answering the question. “The important thing is how do we help audiences understand the value of the arts? While public funding will have a role to play, it is about trying to engage the local community in the value of your product.”

If you put to one side the gross insult that she believes that local theatres, music, dance and art organisations aren’t already hugely involved in the community, her comments betray a worrying lack of understanding when it comes to the arts.

The arts are all about the community. They are all about the people. They are all about attracting as diverse, as wide-ranging, an audience as possible. Look at the programme for any of our theatres – The New Wolsey, the Mercury or Bury Theatre Royal. They are stuffed full of diverse offerings which are designed to appeal to a broad spectrum of artistic taste.

Eastern Angles tours the highways and byways of the region, bringing new theatre with local relevance to people’s doorsteps. Our festivals, like The Bury Festival, Aldeburgh Music, Pulse and HighTide bring music, theatre and art of an international standing to Suffolk. They present work that could normally be enjoyed only if you travelled to London’s Southbank.

How can you even suggest that our arts organisations don’t engage with the community or that local people don’t understand the value of the arts? Of course they do, but what you can’t escape from is the fact that the arts by its very nature is a people-heavy business, and that’s expensive. And you can forget about arts paying ego-driven stars big salaries – that just doesn’t happen here. It’s Equity minimum or the Musicians’ Union equivalent. It’s a hand-to-mouth existence. The brutal truth is that our theatres can sell every seat in the house, pay every performer and technician a minimum wage, and they still won’t break even. That’s the harsh reality. That’s why we need support from The Arts Council.

The arts provide quality of life; a morale boost for people; they help boost the local economy. Arts Council grants are an investment – they generate money across the regions, rather than sending it into business accounts abroad. The arts help make people’s lives better. Surely the Government can invest a little to support that? If they can’t, then we really must seriously look at docking their pay.

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