It’s time for Durham to support its local talent

Fusion installation at Lumiere
Fusion by Mick Stephenson, a Durham artist, commissioned for Lumiere. But sadly, this is the exception rather than the rule.

COMMENT: Durham is great for high-profile festivals but poor at supporting local talent. With a welcome funding boost coming, now is the chance to change.

Durham city has built up a good reputation for arts festivals. Underway is the popular annual Book Festival, with big names from all over the country. Earlier this year were Brass and The Streets, and next year the hugely successful Lumiere will return to Durham. The future of these festivals was in doubt, because they were heavily dependent on arts council national portfolio funding. But fears were quelled when funding was actually increased at a time when overall national funding is being cut.

So what’s not to like? Well, at the risk of being a party pooper, at the time the funding was announced, I pointed out that funding in the north-east is still vastly weighted towards Tyne and Wear, with over 80% of the funding going to a county with only 40% of the population. That raised the question of how much north-east talent is going to waste – a complicated issue that I will return to another day. But before we can solve that problem, I think there is another problem that needs addressing first, which is that there is next to no support for local artists with the funding that County Durham already gets. This is a pattern I’ve observed throughout the county council, city council (when it existed), arts organisations and funding bodies – they may even be doing more harm than good for the local talent.

The thing about Durham’s arts scene is that its support is almost entirely directed at its big festivals. And the big festivals almost entirely draw in their artists from outside the county: usually outside the north, often London, frequently international. That’s great if you’re trying to create a world-class international festival, and it’s great for the people of Durham to have these on their doorstep, but it’s hopeless if you’re trying to do something creative yourself. And then comes the really bitter pill. On virtually every occasion that a north-east artist is commissioned for a high-profile event in Durham – it won’t be Durham artist. It’s almost always someone from Newcastle. Even when it’s writing about events in County Durham. It almost feels like County Durham arts is more Newcastle-centric than Newcastle itself.

And at this point, just to get this on the record: yes, I do have a personal interest here. I can’t speak for the other arts, but as someone who writes plays, it is so frustrating to see the complete disinterest in supporting people like me. I sometimes make the joke that I am the new writing scene in Durham – that’s not quite true, but you get the idea. The few of us who’ve seen our work on stage did so with no help, relying instead on our own time and money – there must be others who aren’t so lucky. True, there’s nothing to stop County Durham writers making use of opportunities in Newcastle such as Live Theatre and the People’s Play – I’ve done that myself, and I’m grateful for it – but it’s very difficult to get your foot in the door if you don’t live there. It’s certainly a poor excuse for Durham leave supporting local talent to somewhere else – look at the support available in Newcastle to Newcastle artists, then compare it to the support offered in Durham to Durham artists, and it’s embarrassing.

An easy response would be that it’s not possible to support emerging artists because of the cuts. And that might be true were it not for the fact that Durham was pretty hopeless before the cuts. When the Gala was generously funded by the City Council and Simon Stallworthy embarked on a flagship new writing programme, I believe they didn’t commission a County Durham writer once. Instead, almost all the plays came from writers in – yes, you’ve guessed it – Newcastle. Worse, this came at the expense of small events such as scratch nights and workshops (they were all too keen to say they were putting all their effort into full-scale productions) – events that could have supported writers on their doorstep.

The thing that really took the biscuit was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Durham, the play meant to celebrate the Lindisfarne Gospels coming to Durham last year, written by Tyneside-based Ed Waugh and Trevor Wood (who already have plenty of opportunities in Tyneside). It was excitedly billed “just like Horrible Histories”. Yes, that’s Horrible Histories, written by County Durham-based Terry Deary, who was incidentally sufficiently interested in local history to write an unofficial companion called Deadly Durham. So, with a local writer available, who one would have thought would be been interested, would clearly have been capable, and couldn’t have been a bigger name, they still chose to import someone from Newcastle instead. (To be fair, I am aware he was considered and it ran into some sort of complications, but after all the other times a Newcastle writer has been picked over a County Durham one, my patience is running out.)

But I’m not raising the issue to have a rant. (Believe me, if that’s what I wanted to use this blog for, you’d be hearing a lot more of that.) I am raising this because this can change for the better, and now is a good time to do so. Durham’s festivals aren’t completely without local representation. Lumiere has a scheme called “Brilliant” that designates four slots each year to local artists which includes County Durham; and whilst I think they could go a lot further, it’s a welcome part of the festival. The Brass festival includes the Miners’ Gala which has the county’s colliery bands, and whilst the colliery bands might not be the ground-breaking art out there, the colliery bands are an important part of the county’s communities. Durham Creatives is an initiative that’s been quite busy helping people set up their own arts and crafts businesses, and whilst I suspect the council’s support is more motivated by the county’s economy than a recognition of artistic talent in the county, it’s still a welcome addition. And the Empty Shop, that for years has run as an open arts venue with no support, is starting to play a role in Durham Book Festival.

The real opportunity, however, comes from the increase in Durham County Council’s festivals grant. Supporting local artists will be neither cheap nor easy, and for most councils facing squeezes of their arts budget, it could mean dropping something else they’re already doing. For once, Durham does not have this constraint – it has the opportunity to do extra things in its festivals over and above what they’re already doing. Is there any chance this will happen? I actually think there is. Where I have spoken to people associated with the festivals, there has been a recognition that it’s over-dependent on imported talent. This is why I think it is important to do this now – wait until the extra funding has been earmarked for other big names from outside the region and it will be hard to change things later.

At the moment, however, the festivals are possibly more of a hindrance than a help to local talent. I don’t want them scrapped – they’re far too big an asset to Durham to remotely consider this – but it shouldn’t be assumed that arts funding always helps artists. At times when no-one got public funding (not that I think we go back to those days), small-scale artists still found ways to find audiences and create and perform. But when you’re up against heavily subsidised large-scale productions that get all the publicity and attention, what chance do you have? It is understandable why people in Newcastle might think the north-east equals Newcastle, but it’s another thing people in Durham think the north-east equals Newcastle. Artists and audience alike, Durham deserves better than that.

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