ACCUSATIONS of “cultural vandalism” have been challenged by a council leader set to axe city arts spending.
Nick Forbes has hit back at critics who have accused him of cutting too far over plans to slash all of Newcastle’s arts funding.
In an open letter on his authority’s Lets Talk blog, the city’s Labour chief said he could understand the levels of anger and upset but “life and death” services had to come before culture.
Ten organisations including Northern Stage, the Tyneside Cinema, Seven Stories and Dance City face losing support worth around £1.5m a year. The Theatre Royal would be worst affected, with £500,000 taken away.
Mr Forbes said he did not need convincing of the benefits such institutions bring, but the “perfect storm” that had led to the council’s current funding crisis meant tough decisions must be taken.
“I’m furious that these cuts have been forced upon us and that some of our city’s best-known cultural institutions will have to do with less,” he said.
“I love to spend a rainy afternoon watching a foreign film at the Tyneside Cinema, I sing in Northern Sinfonia Chorus, and I was lucky enough to see The Pitmen Painters three times when it was first staged at Live Theatre.
“I’ve seen the regeneration triggered by the Sage and Baltic on the other side of the Tyne, I ‘get’ the argument that investment in culture has led to economic regeneration, jobs and prosperity on both banks of the river.”
Mr Forbes said the “awful” decisions he currently had to make were “undoubtedly the worst I have had to make in my political career”.
“We’ve been accused of cultural vandalism, of finding easy targets and of disregarding the evidence that vibrant culture helps build a stronger society and a better economy,” he said. “I love the arts, I appreciate what they can do – but I love protecting the vulnerable more.
“This is a time for priorities. Not even the most committed member of the cultural sector could argue that arts come before life and death services like children’s social work.
“We’re about essential services. I know we can all argue about what constitutes essential, but for us it’s quite simple. It’s the things we must do otherwise people die or suffer terrible abuse that scars them for life. It’s not funding a theatre or a cinema.”
Mr Forbes also addressed criticisms of council plans to close libraries, which Billy Elliot scriptwriter Lee Hall had said would be a “scar on the legacy” of the councillors involved and one that they would regret “for the rest of their political lives”.
“I’ve had a letter from Lee Hall, a writer I greatly admire, accusing the council of stabbing itself in the heart,” said Mr Forbes. “I respect his position and his achievements, but he’s wrong.
“Despite the cuts, we will still have a comprehensive library network with a library within 1.5 miles of nearly all residents.
“And the city council is not completely abandoning culture. We will still have an arts development unit that does great, life changing work with some of our most deprived communities. It may be less sexy and less high-profile, but it really makes a difference.”
Mr Forbes said Newcastle City Council would work with organisations such as the Arts Council to see how it could support the cultural sector, but without regular funding. And he invited people to write to him, their MP or take part in the budget consultation at www.letstalknewcastle.co.uk to protest and get angry about the authority’s proposed cuts.