This article may make you angry, but please channel the energy from that into taking action.
Once every 8 to 10 years, somewhere in the mainstream media, some correspondent decides to give the arts a kicking. I have observed this pattern for 40 years, and often a general election or some financial watershed appears to trigger the event. Next week, 5 December, is the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement on the budget, and austerity isn’t working, so he may need some more visible austerity. Surprisingly, the kicking is coming from the media, from government ministers, and accidentally, from ACE.
I was somewhat surprised to be jerked to full attention during BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 20 November by their arts correspondent Will Gompertz fronting an unbalanced report on arts attendances and arts funding. True to form, after pointing out that classical music and ballet only attract attenders from 8% of the population, the Royal Opera House was the chosen example of elitism, with quotes from non-attenders about posh people, lines of Bentleys outside and £115 tickets. No mention of the regions, more modestly priced events, or arts activities rooted in local communities.
That was bad enough, except Gompertz pursued the contention that millions have been spent on the arts 'to no great effect', and asked Arts Council England CEO Alan Davey whether their mantra of Great Art for Everyone was in fact 'a politically expedient but unrealisable goal'. Now I expected a robust defence of the accessibility of the arts here, but instead, Alan Davey replied: 'Of course great art for everybody is probably unachievable because you’ll never get everybody in the country wanting to encounter the arts and what it can offer' (Alan Davey has since said this was taken out of context from a previous interview).
Don’t give up the day job yet. Despite Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Minister Eric Pickles belittling the post of 'Audience Development Officer', somewhere in the Arts Councils of the UK and in most arts organisations there are people who believe the arts can reach out to the wider population. But this kind of reporting is insidious and dangerous, and looks to be playing to a specific agenda.
The new Secretary of State for Culture Maria Miller (also the Women and Equalities Minister, ironically) is unhappy that she has been criticized for lack of arts attendance and for not yet meeting anyone in connection with the perceived crisis in regional theatre, including people like the Director of the National Theatre, Nick Hytner. This week she said the arguments put forward by these people are 'close to pure fiction'.
For balance, in case you had forgotten, while cutting their spending on the arts by 30%, and cutting the size of the Arts Council of England itself, the Coalition have released more Lottery funding to the arts and started schemes intended to trigger public and corporate philanthropy. While about 200 arts organisations have lost their funding, the NPOs have survival funding for the next two years, and eventually donations will kick-in… Fiction appears to apply to Maria Miller’s statement that government funding is £3 billion over 5 years, when ACE government funding will be £349M by 2014.
The ministers and the DCMS seem to have forgotten that many NPOs, especially outside London, are heavily reliant on ‘partnership funding’, often from multiple local authorities. The Coalition has cut local authority funding and restricted their control on their spending to the point of triggering a real financial crisis in many local authorities. Newcastle upon Tyne was not the first, just the biggest. And many are forced to make the deepest cuts in areas of discretionary spending: the arts.
I used to argue that the three legged stool of partnership funding was the model that saved the arts through the Thatcher years into the 90s, wobbling but still standing, though a colleague warned that if you cut two legs the stool falls over. The real crisis advancing on the arts is from those partnership funding cuts. The notion that donations rapidly replace the missing legs in the regions is ridiculous. The economy is flat-lining, especially outside London and further north, and the Government itself is saying the situation is unlikely to improve much until beyond 2015 – not a great time for fund-raising to close a huge funding gap, or even to maintain attendances.
The fiction is that anyone in the Coalition currently takes a holistic approach to the arts economy, out in the country. They may even be 'fiddling while Rome burns' since the entire DCMS staff have been put 'at risk of redundancy'. We could be about to lose the ministry. Perhaps the country will be indifferent to another change in the bureaucracy of the arts? Will we find out what people think only after the cuts have decimated the arts where people live? I can see audiences turning on their local MPs.
Government actually needs to hear not from us, but from the public who value the arts, who desire the quality of life in their communities throughout the country. We must start making a real case with our audiences. We should not be relying on others to advocate for us, but persuade the public to argue our case.
Don't just be angry, start taking action. Actually, your job may depend upon it.
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