Private View: Economic challenges for the arts remain

For many East Anglian theatres, music bodies and dance organisations there was a huge sense of relief when the results of the latest Arts Council funding review were announced.

And yet even when these organisations were expressing their gratitude that their funding applications had been accepted, they also sounded a sensible note of caution.

Although, Arts Council funding is a huge and vital chunk of their income, it’s not the whole story.

Any arts organisation, no matter how well run, or how frugal, needs revenue from a wide variety of sources to survive.

After the Arts Council, the most important is local government and as we all know, local councils are increasingly strapped for cash themselves.

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This week several theatre bosses while expressing their joy at the fact that the Arts Council has included them as, what they describe as, a National Portfolio Organisation, they stressed that this was only part of the picture.

Sarah Holmes, chief executive of the New Wolsey Theatre, said that she was grateful that both Suffolk County Council and Ipswich Borough had renewed their funding for this year recognising the vital role that theatre played in the lives of the community – particularly during austere times.

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“I think it’s fantastic that our two local authorities have not cut our grants. They have kept us at standstill this year and if you look elsewhere, up and down the country, that’s not the case.

“Many local authorities have pulled the plug on their arts funding and that’s such a mistake. I think our local authorities have been magnificent and we shouldn’t lose sight of that in the middle of all this other malarkey.

“I think we are lucky to have two local authorities who completely understand the value of the arts to the community they’re serving.”

Elsewhere, at Bury St Edmunds and Colchester, The Theatre Royal and the Mercury Theatre will be entering into talks with their local councils to help shore-up an Arts Council settlement that was less than they had applied for.

This reflects the other side of the funding equation. To gain Arts Council funding every arts organisation had to submit a three year plan to improve cultural services for their area.

Understandably, this would require a certain level of funding to achieve this. Not every organisation received the level of funding their required.

Colin Blumenau, outgoing chief executive at Bury’s Theatre Royal, said that as pleasing and important as it was to be recognised by the Arts Council for doing an excellent job, it was only part of the battle.

“I am thrilled that the Arts Council have recognised the value of the work we are doing. But, it is only one battle. We have to now persuade local councils that theatre is a good investment at a time when they are having to make tough decisions.”

At the Colchester Mercury Adrian Grady suggested that they would have to have a long hard look at their finances and then enter into talks with their local councils before they could say whether they were able to deliver their core programme.

“The settlement is great news. We are delighted that we are part of the NPO but now we have to talk to our other funders to see if we can still deliver our core programme. We have suffered the equivalent 11% cut in our current budget. We will need to sit down with the Arts Council and our other funders to see what we can deliver. We have an extremely flexible team here that is always willing to look at other ways of doing things but there comes a tipping point where it become difficult to continue. We’re not there yet but what we would say to our council partners is: “We know we have to share the pain but don’t kill us.”

He added that they had already restructured the theatre and had slimmed down their backroom operations to make the theatre as lean as possible.

Music has always been an expensive art form to provide. World-class musicians do not come cheap and training future world-class musicians is a long and expensive process – both operations that Aldeburgh Music is successfully engaged in.

Aldeburgh Music has suffered a nine per cent cut to their budget. A nine per cent blow to a grant of more than �1 million a year is a sizeable figure and Aldeburgh will be looking to make up this figure through other means.

Helen Lax, regional director of Arts Council, said that there were other forms of revenue available to help make up any short falls and they would be helping to persuade private individuals and companies to engage in arts philanthropy and would be steering lottery cash towards groups engaged in touring work.

She said that part of the criteria of awarding National Portfolio status was that the applicants had a diverse funding structure.

“It’s important that they earn as much income as they can from other sources – get as many trusts and foundations as they can to back them, get private givers on board, press the buttons as far as arts philanthropy goes and use private money as well as our money and local authority money to provide a robust financial base.”

When pressed Helen did admit that persuading local businesses and private individuals to donate money to the arts wasn’t particularly easy when everyone is being forced to tighten their belts.

However, she did point out that people did still enjoy a night out at the theatre or concert hall even in times of austerity and they would be helping companies to secure extra funding by launching a matched funding scheme.

“There are a lot of people living in our region who work in London and have second homes here and they are very influential people. We should be persuading them to get involved. No-one thinks that philanthropy will unleash this sudden tide of wealth but the important thing is that organisations explore their options and have opened out their approach so they are aware of who is in their community who may want to back them.

“In terms of philanthropy we are going to run a matched funding scheme, so where an organisation can get money in from private givers, the Arts Council will match that and depending how much they get in will depend on whether we give a �1 for �2 or �1 for �3 that means there is some incentive for the giver as well as the organisation to give to the arts.”

But it is equally important not to forget the smaller companies – organisations like Eastern Angles who take the arts out of the towns and bring it to people’s doorsteps in the villages. Rural touring is incredibly important and as Ivan Cutting, Eastern Angles’ founder-director, observed five similar rural touring companies elsewhere, companies who attended the Pride of Place Festival held in Suffolk five years ago no longer exist because their funding was cut.

He said: “I am thrilled we are still part of the club. We are delighted and somewhat relieved that the Arts Council have recognised the value of rural touring. This is the best possible endorsement – it’s the equivalent of receiving a five star review! However, we are going to look at different ways of supplementing our funding because we have been offered what is effectively standstill funding and our costs for rural touring are increasing.”

He welcomed the Arts Council’s proposed matched funding scheme which should encourage more people to give to the arts.

He said they are launching The Copperfield Programme, a scheme to encourage arts philanthropy, company sponsorship and individual donations and Neil Innes has agreed to become the scheme’s patron. Ivan said: “Neil has lived in rural Suffolk for a long time and is a big fan of our work. He understands the importance of taking live theatre to audiences in more isolated areas of East Anglia and really wants to help support this community theatre work.”

The majority of our companies have cleared the first financial hurdles but there is still a lot of work and nurturing to do if they are to continue in these challenging times. It is up to us all to support them. Our lives will be considerably poorer without them.

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