Most of you have probably seen this already, but for those who haven’t: Newcastle City Council is proposing cutting the arts budget by 100%. This is a significant – and quite worrying – development, far worse than any news we will hear from any other local authority in the north-east, because of the large number of venues concentrated within the Newcastle local authority area. There are five significant theatres in Newcastle: the Theatre Royal, Live Theatre, Northern Stage, the Tyne Theatre and the People’s Theatre. Then there’s all the other arts venues, such as Dance City, Seven Stories and the Tyneside Cinema. Confusingly, this doesn’t affect the Baltic or the Sage because, being the other side of the Tyne, they are funded by Gateshead Borough Council.
Needless to say, this is proving highly controversial both locally and nationally. Already Lee Hall (of Billy Elliott and Pitmen Painters fame) has weighed into the debate with a strongly-worded letter. Expect Labour Newcastle Council to blame the Coalition Government and vice versa. I remain of the view that arts have to take its fair share of the cuts, but it has been argued that arts in the north are suffering a lot more than their southern counterparts. In any case, a cut of 100% is, by definition, a lot more that its fair share. At the moment, it’s a proposal – whether this will actually go ahead is unclear.
But if this actually happens, what would this mean for the theatres? Well, it’s a phased reduction through to 2016. That gives theatres time to adjust, and for all the talk of devastating cuts, so far the north-east theatres have shown themselves to be resilient. The Theatre Royal believes it is in no danger of closure, and with the subsidy only accounting for 6% of its income I’m minded to believe them. The People’s Theatre is safe in that it was never subsidised in the first place, and for reasons I’ve already stated, we could be hearing a lot more from groups like the People’s moving to fill in the gaps. The Tyne Theatre doesn’t appear to have any subsidy either, and, in any case, it’s got a niche market of comedians and entertainment that looks quite safe.
On the danger list, I believe, is Live Theatre and Northern Stage. At the moment, they both get funded from the Arts Council as portfolio organisations, and as long as it stays that way, they should be safe. But will it stay that way? By 2016, there will be a new round of portfolio funding. The Arts Council may be facing its own cutbacks, and there’s no telling what they will want to prioritise. So far, Live and Northern Stage have co-existed occupying broadly the same niche, but can this continue? There is a serious danger the Arts Council will decide one New Writing Theatre is enough. And if it comes to that, it will be a hell of a job to make ends meet when both theatres aim themselves at similar audiences.
At the moment, both Live and Northern Stage are expressing their concerns about the impact these cuts will have on the region. It’s always difficult to tell whether these worries are genuine or just posturing to secure more funding, but they certainly do have grounds to be genuinely worried. 2013 looks to be a highly unpredictable year for new writing in the north-east.