Making sure London doesn’t steal all of our cultural riches

The regions need continued funding to attract the very best performers such as Sylvie Guillem who pe

The regions need continued funding to attract the very best performers such as Sylvie Guillem who performed at Snape for DanceEast. - Credit: Archant

Last week, while I was enthusiastically celebrating Ipswich Borough Council’s plans to invest in a £20 million arts campus which would bring together Ipswich Museum, New Wolsey Studio and the Ipswich Art School Gallery, a rather disturbing funding report arrived in my inbox.

Essex artist Robert Priseman with his painting of an electric chair hanging at the Ipswich Art Schoo

Essex artist Robert Priseman with his painting of an electric chair hanging at the Ipswich Art School Gallery which formed part of the East Anglian Contemporary Art exhibition.

It was a study which revealed something that we have suspected for years – that arts funding in this country is worryingly skewed to London-based companies.

The report, penned by arts supporters and entrepreneurial businessmen Peter Stark, Christopher Gordon and David Powell, reveals that the Arts Council spends £69 a head on London-based arts companies. Outside the capital, the figure is a lamentable £4.58 per person.

The situation is exacerbated still further by the fact that London also claims the lion’s share of the National Lottery payouts.

Looking at this funding pattern you could be forgiven for thinking that the only place in this country with any creativity is London. However, we know that this isn’t the case.

The regions are bursting with creativity. Suffolk and East Anglia punches far above its weight. The authors of the report maintain that they are not anti-London and I agree. It’s about resourcing our arts provision properly wherever it is situated.

It may come as a surprise to some decision makers that not all cutting-edge arts and culture providers are based in the capital. I think it’s great that an international touring company like Gecko continues to be based in Ipswich, that PULSE and HighTide promote new talent, that the Mercury and the New Wolsey devote part of their programme each year to send a new work out into the world. DanceEast commission work and bring to Suffolk performers who would normally only ever be seen on the Southbank.

Most Read

This is work that should be recognised and should be given the support it deserves.

But, it’s not just about Suffolk creating work that goes out as a cultural ambassador to the rest of the country – although that is important – what is just as important are the smaller venues and touring companies that serve the people of Suffolk.

The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, does a brilliant job bringing a mixed programme to west Suffolk and Eastern Angles have, not only, a distinguished record of bringing theatre to village halls and community centres across the region, but they are experts at creating first-class drama out of local stories and historical events.

The Benjamin Britten centenary celebrations this year are also a vivid demonstration of how important the regions are to the nation’s cultural identity. Not everything should have a London focus.

It’s pleasing that high profile figures like the SouthBank Show’s Melvyn Bragg agree that something needs to be done to redress this London-centric approach to arts funding.

He said: “This report is timely, urgent and damning of an increasingly centralised funding process.

“London is simply eating up the resources which are limited and therefore starving the rest of the country. This is wrong, short-sighted and undoubtedly unfair. I think it is time that the rest of England fought back.”

The report authors acknowledge that it may be difficult to create short-term solutions to the Arts Council’s long-term funding policy – a policy which was designed to give a sense of stability and allow companies to plan for the future knowing that money would be there.

However, Stark, Gordon and Powell suggest that a good way to try to balance the funding imbalance would be to restrict London companies’ access to National Lottery funding allowing a greater proportion to be channelled to the regions.

This becomes an even more attractive solution when the findings of a separate report by Arts and Business show that donations and private sponsorship for arts organisations outside London dropped from £125m to £121m last year while London-based companies saw their total rise from £488m to £539m.

Alan Davey, chief executive of the Arts Council, admits that the situation needs to change and reassures us that it will given time. But, he also makes a good point that London is not just for Londoners. It is also our cultural capital and attracts audiences from all over the country and not just those from inside the M25.

He agrees however that there is more to do to ensure a more even spread of resources. “We are about to go into an investment process for the next three years where we will target our money intelligently across England. We are already using specific lottery schemes that nurture art and culture where there is not enough, and reach more of the public through touring and digital distribution. It is also vital local authorities continue to invest alongside us as partners. Local authority cuts remain the biggest threat to places outside London.”

It is vital that we all work to together to make sure that we have the cultural provision that we deserve.