by Linda Saunders
Once upon a time when it came to Spending Reviews, the biggest concern nationwide would be about changes from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Arts Council England.
But the landscape for arts funding has changed, and the financial gap between nationally significant (or London-based) and regionally focused organisations has never been so wide.
The old models need to change; there is no simpler way to say it. And if they don’t, Britain’s provincial cultural programmes are under an increasingly serious threat.
As it is today, many regionally-based arts organisations face the difficult prospect of cuts on two fronts – from the Arts Council England and from their local authority.
This double whammy is potentially crippling, and it’s crucial that both local councils and the Arts Council England come to a more strategic understanding of what each organisation is best placed to fund.
In the last three years, the Arts Council England has lost over a third of its government funding, leaving arts organisations facing an uncertain future.
And local authorities are under continued pressure, especially from the additional 10 per cent reductions outlined in the recent spending review and an increasing demand for social care; reducing their ability to both fund creativity and the arts.
And whilst the Arts Council England turns its attention to ‘creative sustainability’, local authorities find different solutions to the same problems – sometimes in response to local need, sometimes from political belief. Some have already gone down the route of 100 per cent cuts in arts budgets, for instance Westminster.
Whilst others, like Newcastle, have pulled back and found a new way of continuing some funding. Here in Sandwell the Local Authority threatens the closure of its most prominent cultural centre – The Public in West Bromwich.
So where else can regional arts organisations look? The Government and Arts Council England extol the virtues of philanthropy, but the reality outside London is depressing; Arts and Business found in their 2012-13 report that 90 per cent of individual giving and 68 per cent of business investment remains firmly in the capital and the rest of the country’s arts administrators are furiously writing and fighting over bids to ensure their survival.
The truth is those of us delivering programmes to regional audiences are left in a difficult position – squeezed on every side. There is an assumption in some circles that “people don’t understand it and don’t want art” – an assumption both wrong and offensive.
The Public received a huge show of support from the people of West Bromwich (an Arts Council England area of low participation) following Sandwell Council’s declaration that it intends to close the building and turn it into a sixth form for a neighbouring college – with a vigorous campaign led by users of the building and 5,000 local people signing a petition to save it.
It is clear, the people do still need, want and respond to a strong cultural programme – one underpinned by the nurture of artists, and audiences.
And more importantly, and quite simply, without this grass roots engagement we will not have artists or audiences for the great national institutions and the virtues of creativity and participation in the arts will be lost – supporting the creative industries (that contribute 10 per cent of national output), in supporting health and well being (as social care bills rocket), and in enhancing learning at all ages and stages.
So we return to the reality, with no more money in the public purse, the cultural and arts worlds have to think about radical new models, as happened recently in Newcastle, in order to survive. And this requires strategic leadership – from local authorities, from the Arts Council England, and the wider arts, culture and business communities.
It requires recognition that every great artist started somewhere and early nurturing of talent is vital; incubation generally found at the most local of levels. But ‘the Newcastle solution’ won’t work everywhere; the UK’s arts and culture communities need to be, ironically, more creative.
The potential for consortia, willingness for venues to give up fiercely held independence, a more strategic view of the arts across the boundaries of local authorities, and a greater willingness to collaborate. These solutions may seem brave, they may feel new, but they are the only way forward in such changing and challenging times.
• Linda Saunders is the managing director of The Public gallery in West Bromwich, currently under threat of closure. For more on The Public, visit www.thepublic.com .
• For more on the campaign to Love Our Public, visit www.loveourpublic.com .