Funding the future of the arts in East Anglia

With the Olympics looming in 2012, the last five years have not been good for arts funding in the regions. Sport has sucked up much of the available lottery money and now with cuts in public spending slicing away at budgets, the future of the arts in East Anglia is looking decidedly precarious.

But, what is the true story? What is the real situation? I decided to sit down with the directors and executives behind some of our leading arts companies to see how they viewed the future. Will things remain the same? Will seasons get shorter? Will the type of performers coming to the region change? Can business and private donations really fill the funding gap?

Cuts and change are affecting virtually every avenue of life and it is naive to assume that the arts will be unaffected but the question that remains unanswered is how the cuts will affect the shows and the concerts we attend. Fear and uncertainty currently surrounds the future of arts funding.

The arts are important. Not only do they add quality of life they are also provide a huge boost to the economy of the town. During the run of a show or concert money is spent in bars, restaurants, car parks, hotels, people are employed, materials for sets and costumes are bought, programmes printed, the list is endless. It helps create a vibrant town and a healthy, exciting place to live.

If we are to come out of recession then something has to be happening. The people have to be living – not merely existing. They have to be optimistic for the future and the arts have a vital role to play in that.


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Dee Evans, chief executive of the Mercury Theatre, Colchester, said that having already absorbed a 0.5% cut this year, the Arts Council have now asked them to prepare for a 10% cut for next 12 months.

“In addition, the Arts Council have been asked to model for a reduction of 30% over the next four years.

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“The fact of the matter is that there are going to be cuts for everyone and the theatres must accept their share. We take the view ‘we will get through this’ but it will be tough.”

She said she realised that from an audience’s point of view the concern was how would the cuts affect the season. Will it mean shorter seasons, smaller casts, fewer home-produced plays?

Nothing will be ruled out although she vowed to protect the core of what the Mercury is about – which is putting on quality plays. “We do five classic plays per year, plus the pantomime and we average 10.5 actors per production.

“In future we will probably reduce that figure to nine but we may go lower. We are looking at various models including having a company which goes right through the year. But nothing is decided until we get to see the fine detail.”

She said that they were looking to retain all their staff but admitted that if staff members left, they may not be replaced.

“The thing about theatre is audiences. I think if we can keep the artists going and keep the designers motivated – “You’re going to have to be just that little bit more creative because we’ve got just a bit less money” – but if we can keep everything going, if we can keep the audiences then we can get through this. I may sound a bit gung ho but you have to be.”

Adrian Stokes, the Mercury’s associate director, said that they needed to discover new ways to deliver shows to the audience.

“Our biggest fear is if they went for a 30% cut in year one then that would give us no time to change the way we do things.”

He said that throughout the changes, it was vitally important that they didn’t lose sight of the fact that they were there to produce exciting theatre.

Jonathan Reekie, chief executive for Aldeburgh Music, described the current arts landscape as bleak and the outlook as uncertain. “For the next 12 months I think the uncertainty is going to be just as difficult to deal with as the bleakness.

“I think we need to worry that public investment is going to fall quite considerably – but the problem is that we don’t know by how much. The scenario that we have been given so far is a 25-30% reduction over four years but with a 10% reduction in year one.”

He said that they were actively looking at alternative funding plans to try and plug the gap. “We, as an organisation have never ever sat back and thought: ‘we’re here and the public can pay for it.’ We raise a huge amount of money from our activities and we raise a huge amount of money from private philanthropy too – more than a million pounds a year.”

He said that the most frightening aspect of the future was that it was going to be harder to access philanthropic cash as their was going to less money available. “The government have made a great play of wanting to support increased philanthropy and the other is the question of the lottery. But, there don’t appear to be any hard facts to explain how more philanthropy can be encouraged, for example: Are there going to be tax breaks? If you want to encourage more giving there have to be tax breaks but that goes against the desire to reduce the budget deficit – I don’t know how that is going to be resolved.”

He added that private philanthropy is much easier to attract in London. “Also I want to disabuse people of the idea that arts organisations aren’t already very clever and energetic about how they generate a mixed income. I think for non-London and non-metropolitan arts organisations this is a very serious issue.

He said that Aldeburgh Music already worked extremely hard to encourage private philanthropy but he said that it would be extremely hard to increase philanthropy. “My concern is that if there is the fall in public funding that we think there will be then it is going to be very, very hard to make up that difference.”

Something that Jonathan Reekie, Colin Blumenau from Bury Theatre Royal and Sarah Holmes from the New Wolsey Theatre all pointed out that money invested in regional arts wasn’t ‘dead’ money, it generated additional money for the local economy. Audiences paid for car parks, bought drinks in bars, ate in restaurants, were put up in hotels and guest houses, as were the performers. Local people were employed in the theatres and concert halls, local businesses were used to service the venues. Wages from the local employees were spent in the immediate area.

He said that Aldeburgh productions has generated 50 new jobs and are worth �1 million net household income every year. Colin Blumenau said that the Theatre Royal pushed �1.75 million a year into West Suffolk while the New Wolsey delivered �6 million into the Ipswich economy.

All said that all reductions in their budgets will mean that there will be less money being pumped into the local economy.

Colin Blumenau, artistic director for Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, said that it was the uncertainty which meant that it was difficult to plan for the future. “We don’t know what is going to happen and to be fair the Arts Council doesn’t know what is going to happen but what we do know is that the landscape is going to change. These are not cuts that we can just absorb. There will tangible changes which everyone will be able to see.”

He said that at the moment Bury’s homegrown productions will remain. “We’ve had internal meetings and we have said that we will protect, not the infrastructure, but what the infrastructure supports, and it’s the artistic work, that is the reason we are all there and consequently that is the last thing to go.”

He said that at present they looking at different funding avenues and seeing what could suit them best. “At the moment we are looking at where we are and where we need to be. We are looking at everything, nothing is ruled out. I think we need to recognise that the ground is going to change completely, it’s going to change for everybody and we need to be prepared for it.”

He added although they faced great difficulties, the only way to face this was to remain positive and see it as an opportunity. “We need to join with the public to convince government about the intrinsic value of the arts.”

Ivan Cutting, founding director of Eastern Angles Theatre Company, said that it felt as if they were living in purgatory at the moment.

“We are sort of existing in limbo at the moment. We know that changes in funding are coming but we don’t know the details. We know that we should have the details about next year by November.

“But, next year is kind of an interim year. I don’t think there will be any big announcements about cuts at that stage but in March 2011 then we will be told about the following two years and that’s when they will make the big decisions about who gets what.”

He said that the big question for all theatre companies, but particularly smaller, regional companies centred on whether the cuts were “front-loaded” or “back-loaded” – whether the cuts were to be made in one savage slice at the beginning of the process or applied gradually over a period of time.

“We know the cuts are coming. We accept that. The big fight is not for or against cuts but rather how they are going to be delivered. If they are front-loaded and happen in the first year then there will be devastation. If they are delivered over the three years then there is more chance of people surviving.”

He said that the practical upshot of the cuts was that they would either do less touring, do a production less or take a bit out of every show and reduce budgets by taking actors out of shows. “Of course, you can do that but you can’t keep on doing that. So what I would like is for the staff to find more ways to pay for themselves rather than cutting them. If we cut staff then we can’t deliver what we should be delivering. In order to deliver our Christmas show, which is very important because it brings in a surplus, we need a full staff. If we cut staff then we would be jeopardising that show and that surplus. It would be a double whammy, really.”

He said that Bentwater Roads had been a great success. They had reached all their targets and he was looking at the possibility that more site specific work maybe a more economic way to continue the Eastern Angles story.

At the New Wolsey Theatre, chief executive Sarah Holmes, was adopting a wait and see strategy. Next year sees their tenth anniversary since the theatre was re-opened and they are looking at continuing the revitalisation of theatre-going in the town.

“I am very grateful that the Arts Council has been so upfront. In truth they don’t know any more than we do, but they have been terrific at taking our case to the government, and passing on what information they get back. But, at the moment there’s not a lot of firm information to talk about. There’s just a whole heap of conjecture going on. But, you have got to make the best of it. We have to keep the public and their needs in the foremost of our minds.”

She said that the New Wolsey had a history of co-productions and would look at increased collaborations to help share costs between other theatres - including The Mercury and the Theatre Royal at Bury. The biggest fear is that once the interim year is over that some tough choices may have to be made and Sarah says: “I don’t think there is going to be equal misery for all.”

This is the beginning of a long road of artistic and financial upheaval.

Watch this space...

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