Fighting our corner in Arts Council shake-up

Robert Pacitti of SPILL Thinktank, Ipswich with Jen Walke, Kate Madden, Charlene Katuwawala and Jule

Robert Pacitti of SPILL Thinktank, Ipswich with Jen Walke, Kate Madden, Charlene Katuwawala and Jules Devonshire in The White Room behind Ipswich Museum. SPILL has helped put Ipswich on the national arts map.

This week the latest pronouncement from The Arts Council landed on my desk. It was trumpeting the fact that there has been another efficiency shake-up and from July 1 the eastern region will now be included in a super-South-East region stretching from Brighton to Cromer.

Eastern Angles production of Parkway Dreams. Eastern Angles has specialised in creating new theatre

Eastern Angles production of Parkway Dreams. Eastern Angles has specialised in creating new theatre drawn from local stories and then tours to town and villages. It performs a vital function in keeping communities alive.

While trying to put a positive, concentration of expertise, spin on things, Alan Davey, chief executive of Arts Council England, did admit that the changes had been imposed upon them by government cutbacks. It has had to halve its administration costs as part of the agreement for its 2011-2015 settlement

He said: “Making these savings has required a major restructure and calls for new ways of working. The Arts Council remains one national organisation with local presence. We will continue to advocate for arts and culture at all levels, and to be an intelligent and collaborative investor, leading growth and ambition in the sector. We may be smaller but we will be just as effective, and continue to serve the sector and audiences with knowledge, passion and commitment.”

But the Arts Council deserves applause for continuing to fight its corner. Arts Council chairman Peter Bazalgette successfully argued the case for the arts with culture minister Maria Miller last week and came away with a modest 5% budget cut as part of fairly draconian comprehensive spending review.

So there is going to be more misery ahead but it won’t be quite as bad as it could have been. Sometimes we have to be thankful for small mercies.

But, the arts world can’t breathe too large a sigh of relief because Mr Davey has indicated that he doesn’t want to preside over a death by a thousand cuts regime. Salami-slicing, or equal pain-for-all, hasn’t really worked in the past as a 15% cut has a disproportionately large impact on smaller companies rather than a large national company like The Royal Opera House or The Royal National Theatre.

As when the Arts Council redrew their national portfolio of funded companies, Mr Davey has signalled they are going to have to play favourites in order to maintain the necessary funding levels that some companies require to survive.

Most Read

While I can see the logic behind this winners and losers approach, my fear is that the winners and losers may be defined by geography rather than the work they do. I suspect that the focus of everyone’s attention will centre on high profile, London-based companies and the regions will consequently end up bearing the brunt of the financial pain.

As I pointed out in a previous column, East Anglia in general and Suffolk in particular is going through something of a golden period at the moment, in terms of contemporary arts, but success is a fragile thing. The New Wolsey, Eastern Angles, DanceEast, The Mercury at Colchester are doing fantastic work which reach a national audience thanks to tours, festivals like HighTide, Pulse, SNAP and Spill bring London audiences to Suffolk, as does the Aldeburgh Festival. Cultural tourism is a vital part of our local economy and it must be safeguarded.

The creation of a south-east super region adds to my feeling of paranoia. With decision-makers being based in London and Brighton I don’t feel confident that the people with control of the purse strings will be sufficiently au fait with the world of Suffolk arts to know what they are jeopardising.

It is the arts which has provided a rare bout of sunshine and kept the country on a moderately even keel over the chaotic last five years. They have provided a welcome respite from the ongoing banking crisis, the collapsed economy, the Euro-crisis and the bewildering array of political scandals which never seem to die down.

At times they are the one positive piece of Britain that’s worth celebrating.

Britain has a rich cultural heritage, let’s celebrate it and the contemporary arts feed into that sense of contributing to something that’s bigger than ourselves.

Of course, there are more ways to fund the arts than receiving Arts Council money – no arts company is ever reliant on just the Arts Council grant for survival.

The arts survive through a mixture of Arts Council money, awards from the Heritage Lottery Fund, business sponsorship and grants from local authorities but the bulk of the money comes from ticket sales, which is as it should be.

But, it’s a finely balanced financial eco-system. Tamper with one element and suddenly you could be faced with financial collapse.

What the Arts Council does by supporting a company is give a badge of legitimacy to an organisation. It is much easier for cash-strapped local authorities to support a theatre, orchestra or gallery if it has Arts Council backing. The same is true for businesses wanting to sponsor an organisation or event.

So, if the Arts Council withdraws funding, for no other reason than they need to make savings, then the consequences could be more far-reaching than just the need to replace the sum of money involved.

So, as we enter another round of belt-tightening let’s hope that this new super-sized South-East Arts Council region can see beyond the Brighton Festival and knows exactly what is going on in Suffolk.