Private View: Standing up for regional arts

It’s a fact of life that much of the arts world in this country is London-centric. We don’t have to like it but we have to accept that it is true. However, thanks to terrific work carried out by theatre companies like The New Wolsey, the Mercury, Eastern Angles and The Theatre Royal at Bury and by DanceEast and Aldeburgh Music, we manage to occasionally attract the attention of national bodies who are invariably pleased and a little surprised at the good work going on in the regions .

I always greet these plaudits with mixed emotions. On the one hand I am always ridiculously pleased when one of our arts organisations has been recognised and yet at the same time I am extremely annoyed that they should think it is remarkable that excellent theatre or music is being created and enjoyed beyond the boundary of the M25.

It is extremely insulting.

If the arts are to mean anything then they have to be supported and cherished in every corner of this country.

It is extremely dangerous and divisive to create so-called pockets of excellence.

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Invariably this means a lot of time, money and resources being poured into showcase theatres in favoured areas – usually in big cities which may or may not be in marginal constituencies.

It politicises art – something which should bring people together but can be used to push a wedge between areas of the country.

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One of the great failures of the early 1980s was the so-called Glory of the Garden where the Arts Council concentrated all their funding in a few showcase projects.

Vast swathes of the country were ignored while favoured projects had vast funds lavished upon them. Invariably these showcase projects were all situated in large cities.

Time moves on, and once again money is tight, and there is a feeling in the air that we may again be headed towards a Glory of the Garden scenario – if not in name then in spirit.

When you hear people talk of the cultural Olympics you get a distinct feeling of d�j� vu. They even use the same phraseology – terms like ‘showcase events’ are bandied about swiftly followed with names like Manchester, Newcastle and Liverpool.

Once again East Anglia is left out in the cold.

At the end of this month the Arts Council is going to be announcing the new funding arrangements for 2012 and beyond.

There is less money available – we all ready know this and the Arts Council have made no secret that it’s not going to dish out equal misery for all. I think that everyone accepts that funding has to be cut back but if every organisation suffered the same percentage cut in order to achieve the savings required by central Government then nothing would survive.

Regularly-funded organisations, including DanceEast, Aldeburgh Music and all our leading theatre companies, have had to re-apply for funding.

Those who get through will be well looked after – but sadly those who are not successful will find themselves out in the cold and will need to develop an alternative means of funding.

It is to be hoped that the Arts Council will spread their munificence across the country and we pray that Suffolk and north Essex will not be overlooked once again.

We all need the arts on our doorstep. We shouldn’t have to travel hundreds of miles to see uplifting theatre, revel in wonderful music or see great art. This should be available to all.

It is reassuring this week to see some of our greatest actors reminding the Government of this very fact.

In an open letter to the Coalition and the Arts Council, three dozen of the nation’s greatest actors point out that not only does the arts invest money in the economy but Government needs to invest in the future of the arts if we want it to survive.

Stars like Kenneth Branagh, Victoria Wood, Brenda Blethyn, Robert Glenister, Sheila Hancock, Peter Capaldi, Dame Helen Mirren, Diana Quick, David Tennant, David Threlfall, Michael Sheen and many others all maintain that they wouldn’t have got to their exalted places in the acting profession without support from central Government to both local theatre and to arts education.

It is a strongly-worded letter which reminds those who control the purse strings that cutting the arts can look like a simple, vote-winning thing to do, but can easily turn into a horrible own goal.

If the work in the regions wasn’t vital enough for its own sake then don’t forget that regional theatre feeds the capital.

Look at work that starts at The Mercury, The New Wolsey and Bury Theatre Royal and then goes elsewhere.

New danceworks at developed at the Jerwood DanceHouse on the Ipswich Waterfront before moving to London theatres and around the country.

Young actors, writers and directors are given the opportunity to develop their craft in the regions. Not only is it a vital training ground, it is a hotbed of fresh young talent.

Look at the fantastic work done by the HighTide Festival at the Halesworth Cut. It has produced award-winning plays for Edinburgh and for London theatres.

All this would be at risk if funding was cut – and not only would local audiences lose out but the arts nationally would be poorer without this root network off which it feeds.

Tim Pigott-Smith said that training in the regions and in smaller theatres is crucial.

“There is now absolutely nowhere to go to learn. Some people in the business are confidently predicting the closure of around 200 organisations in the coming year.”

East Anglian arts bodies also face a double blow. Not only is the Arts Council funding under threat but so too is the money they receive from local Government.

Alison Steadman, who is currently starring alongside Ruthie Henshall in the Noel Coward play Private Lives in the West End, said: “The soul of our nation is reflected on our televisions, theatre stages and cinema screens.

“These cuts will drastically limit the opportunities for young writers, directors and actors to reflect this society and a generation of talent could be lost.”

It affects film as well as theatre and music. Earlier this month we got very excited about the success of The King’s Speech at the Oscars, but where is the next generation of writers, directors and actors going to come from to give us another Oscar and more importantly provide us with popular, intelligent films about our own culture if we fail to look after the arts in all its forms right across the nation.

Philanthropy and business sponsorship doesn’t work in the regions – not on the scale to keep theatres and music festivals running.

Companies with the capacity to pump the sums needed to keep an arts organisation afloat want a national spotlight and aren’t easily persuaded to part with their money if its not Covent Garden or the RSC doing the asking.

It’s time those at the top recognised the vital role the arts play in our lives as well as our economy.

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