A tough choice is coming on arts funding – and we need to make it

Baltic mill during the Turner Prize
Prestige and pride for the north-east – but is it still a good use of our money?

COMMENT: What is arts funding for? That is a difficult decision the arts community has to make, before someone else makes it for us.

Now, don’t get me wrong. In the early hours on May 8th, I was one of the many people who threw my cushion at the telly in disgust and went to bed – along with, I suspect, most of the arts community. But the fact remains a Conservative majority has been elected, and that means more cuts are on the way. (For the record, my own view is that some sort of cuts were necessary in the last Parliament but no further cuts are needed in Parliament, but that’s not what the voters decided. Arse.) And this almost certainly means that arts funding is going to take a further hit. Let’s be realistic: there’s not much we can do to stop this. It is inconceivable that we can make the case to exempt arts from cuts when services such as the Police and social care are facing cuts too. There was a good case to argue no further austerity is needed, but the other side won the vote. There are perhaps some battles to be fought over how much of the cuts should fall on the arts, but the chance of escaping cuts altogether is about zero.

And it’s a shame that the arts are facing further cuts. I feel the arts industry – theatres in particular – have handled this matter with remarkable pragmatism and dignity. Most anti-cuts protests seem to either call for the government to either stick more paper in the money-printing machine, or make ludicrous claims about how we could definitely pay for everything if only we raided the tax havens of those fat cats. Campaigns such as My Theatre Matters, on the other hand, have accepted they can’t be exempt from cuts but don’t want the arts subsidies to be singled out as an easy cash cow (such as what councils such as Newcastle try to do). Some big theatres such as Newcastle’s Theatre Royal are even honest enough to say that they can manage without a subsidy and other theatres need the money more.

But the reality is that you can’t escape cuts simply by being pragmatic or dignified. The question is likely to be not if there’s cuts but where the cuts fall. Chances are the choices will be more painful than last time. But if it has to come to this, it’s important that we have our say. I’m not saying that the arts industry should do the government’s dirty work in deciding where to make cuts, but the one thing we urgently need to agree is what the purpose of arts funding is. Continue reading

Richmond’s Georgian Theatre safe?

Picture of Georgian Theatre
Small bit a good news from Yorkshire. You might remember two years ago I reported the troubling news The Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond was in trouble. They weren’t exactly saying the theatre was under imminent threat from closure, but they hinted this might have to be the outcome if not enough backers came forwards. It’s not clear how likely this possibility actually was, but with nearby Darlington Arts Centre having already gone down the pan, it was certainly enough to get people worried.

Well, it looks like help is on its way. The news broke yesterday that the Georgian Theatre has scooped a £286k lottery grant to expand its exhibition and educational facilities. This is on top of  £231k bequest made two years ago. Now, before you get too excited, this doesn’t necessarily mean the Georgian Theatre is off the hook just yet. This grant doesn’t actually cover running the theatre itself. Saltburn Theatre is currently having a similar struggle – they received a £50k lottery grant for sound, lighting and new seats, but they couldn’t use it to pay of the debts incurred in an attempt to convert an old school into an arts space. But with the historic character of the theatre being its key feature, surely this is going to make the cash flow a lot easier. Continue reading

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.

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Lumiere to stay? (and other arts funding news)

Picture of Lumiere from 2011

If you’ve tried to speak to anyone working in a theatre in the last week and they bit your head off, it was probably nothing personal – it’s more likely they were stressing over the decision of the Arts Council’s 2015-2018 National Portfolio organisation. But it was announced this morning, so the time for nail-biting and head-biting is over. What does it mean for theatre round here?

On the whole, it’s quite good considering the cuts gong on across the board. Live Theatre, Northern Stage and the Stephen Joseph Theatre have all kept their funding. Small snag is there’s no increase to compensate for inflation, so it works out as a small real-terms cut, but that alone isn’t too difficult to absorb. They’re not entirely out of the woods yet, because it’s a different story with funding from Newcastle City Council and North Yorkshire County Council. But, on the whole, they can be relieved today.

Now, turning my attention to Durham, one alarming absence from the map is the Gala Theatre, which was a hub that funded Brass, The Streets, and – most importantly – Lumiere. Don’t panic. It hasn’t gone, they just forgot to put it on the map. If you looks at the spreadsheet instead, it’s still there (now renamed to Durham Arts Festivals Hub). What’s more, the grant is nearly double what is was in 2012-2015. So this looks like good news for anyone hoping Lumiere will return in 2015 – Durham County Council have been hinting for months that it depends on funding, and now they’ve got it.

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Some good news from Saltburn

Saltburn Community TheatreRight, whilst I am catching up on my backlog of news and reviews, here’s a bit of news from Saltburn. With all the cuts going on, there’s been a lot of bad news in financial terms for theatres. Darlington Arts Centre has already closed, and hopes of a re-opening are fading fast. Newcastle City Council proposed to cut all arts funding last year, and whilst this has sort-of been watered down, there’s question marks over whether this “cultural fund” at 50% of the old arts fund is any better. It’s unclear whether the Esk Valley Theatre will be able to maintain its professional programme after they lost their Arts Council funding. Even the famous Georgian Theatre in Richmond is in danger of closing. All in all, it’s not a happy time to be a theatre treasurer.

Well, for a change, here’s a bit of good news from my old home town. Last month, Saltburn Community Theatre managed to bag a £50,000 grant from the National Lottery through the People’s Millions. The People’s Millions is a public vote where two worthy organisations pitch their proposals to the viewers of local ITV news (Tyne Tees in this case), and it then goes to a public vote, with the winning getting the money. I must say I’m not sure we should be allocating money on an all-or-nothing basis in a series of head-to-head votes, and I suspect the real motivation behind a public vote is free publicity for the National Lottery, but hey, it’s good news. If it’s any consolation, the group Saltburn beat, the Royal Voluntary Society with their scheme for older men isolated rural communities in Northumberland, also got £50,000 as runner up with the most votes.

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Richmond’s Georgian Theatre next?

Picture of Georgian Theatre

One bit of concerning news from North Yorkshire today: the Georgian Theatre in Richmond is launching an appeal fund to – so the Georgian Theatre Trust claims –  save it from closure. There’s no immediate plans to close the theatre, but the concern is that as public funding streams have dried up with the various cuts, the theatre cannot continue to break even on box office and bar sales alone.

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100% is too much

COMMENT: The arts have to take their fair share of cuts along with everyone else – but the 100% proposed by Newcastle City Council is going way too far.

At the moment, everybody who’s anybody is sticking their oar in to protest against the proposed 100% cut to Newcastle City Council’s arts budget. This is gone way beyond a local campaign, and has been grabbing the attention of national media and national celebrities. I’m not really one for leaping on to bandwagons, but on this occasion I have to say I am in broad agreement with – well, pretty much everyone else.

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The end of arts funding in Newcastle?

Newcastle City Council logoMost 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.

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Is the People’s Theatre the shape of things to come?

Howard Brenton’s Never So Good is an interesting play about a piece of British history fading from memory. Even more interesting, however, is the prospect of the rise of the semi-professional performance.

Amateur dramatics is often dismissed out of hand by professionals as, well, amateurish. For reasons I’ll come on to in a moment, I think this is a stupid generalisation, but it sticks. But in the north-east, the People’s Theatre is the exception. It is highly thought of across the region, it teams up with New Writing North for the region’s most prestigious playwriting competition, and it is reputedly popular with aspiring professional actors seeking to make a name for themselves. It even managed to get performing rights to Lee Hall’s The Pitman Painters whilst the official professional production was still touring. (I’ve also heard complaints that the company is ridden with amateur dramatics politics, but let’s be fair: that applies to most drama groups.)

The People’s Theatre’s latest offering is Never So Good by Howard Brenton, a biopic of former Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. The politics of the UK 50s and 60s is, when you think about it, a surprisingly obscure subject in the public consciousness. Political history tends to be viewed as Chamberlain, Churchill, Atlee, and then nothing of note until Thatcher. This play brings to life an era where old values are giving way to new ones. The story begins with a young Macmillan dutifully and wholeheartedly signing up for World War One; continues with Macmillan’s opposition to Chamberlain’s appeasement, even overlooking his wife’s continuing affair with a political ally; his underhand tactics as Chancellor to seize power from a prime minster’s disastrous foreign intervention (does that sound familiar?); and finally, after career of public duty for country and empire, his inability to understand why people now want to laugh with oiks like Peter Cook at Beyond the Fringe, or jeopardise his government with the first major sex scandal in politics. I wasn’t quite convinced by the younger Macmillan following the older Macmillan as a mocking commentator – it seems a half-hearted attempt to integrate this into the play, and I’ve seen other writers employ this device better – but it’s still a well-written play. Continue reading

Give Darlington Arts Centre to the people

COMMENT: If Darlington Council can no longer run Darlington Arts Centre, it should be handed to people who can.

One issue that’s been discussed a lot throughout the theatre world but not much on this blog is the cuts to arts subsidies. I’ve got mixed views about it myself, which I may go into another day, but this post is about what’s happening now. As it happens, north-east theatres aren’t doing too badly. Live Theatre and Northern Stage have kept their “portfolio” status (as has the Stephen Joseph Theatre). The Theatre Royal and Sunderland Empire are very much commercial ventures and so have little to fear. The Gala Theatre has got some sort of status as a “cultural” hub for all of Durham’s festivals. There’s issues over local authority funding and internal politics at the Gala, but on the whole there’s no prospect of any of these places closing their doors.

A glaring exception is Darlington. Darlington Borough Council ran two theatres on Arts Council support: the Civic Theatre and the Arts Centre. But unlike its Newcastle counterparts, lack year, the funding was scrapped. For a while, the closure of both theatres was contemplated. Thankfully, the Civic Theatre has done well enough since then to escape the axe, but the Arts Centre was not so lucky. In July this year, Darlington Arts Centre was closed, and this is a big loss to the town. The Civic Theatre alone does not compensate for this. Small theatres are an asset because they allow small-scale productions to perform that would never be viable in a 500+ seat theatre. I see little chance that plays going to the Arts Centre will be using the Civic Theatre instead.

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