Following outrage over Newcastle City Council’s proposed withdrawal of funding for arts organisations, DAVID WHETSTONE reports on how opposing forces are coming together
THE postcard that tumbled from my programme at the Theatre Royal earlier this week made me think: well, there really is more than one way to skin a cat.
In red capital letters on black – colours associated with anger and action rather than meek complicity – it proclaimed: “NOT 100%.” On the back was a message for Newcastle City Council and a request to the holder to sign it and hand it to a staff member to deliver to the Civic Centre.
The message states: “The cultural life of Newcastle is important to me and is the envy of much of the UK. It is one of the things that makes Newcastle a great place to live and it helps create jobs and investment that we badly need by encouraging tourists to visit here and businesses to set up here.”
Acknowledging that the council must make cuts, it goes on: “I don’t expect the council’s funding of arts and cultural activity to be an exception, but 100% is too much.”
The postcards and matching posters were created by Newcastle Gateshead Cultural Venues (NGCV), a partnership of 10 of the major cultural institutions in the neighbouring places.
For several days they have been displayed at the Newcastle venues including the Theatre Royal, Live Theatre, Northern Stage, Dance City, Seven Stories and the Tyneside Cinema, where they were printed. The people who run these venues are not much given to public apoplexy – they tend to leave that to the likes of Lee Hall whose campaign against Newcastle’s proposed library closures has twinned economic analysis with eloquent if strident rhetoric.
One NGCV chief exec led me to a quiet corner to explain, in confidential tones, the implications of the proposed 100% cuts to the organisation in question.
I was given the impression that quiet diplomacy was the order of the day.
It was reinforced by Joe Docherty, regional chairman of Arts Council England, who attended a meeting a few days ago with Arts Council regional director Alison Clark-Jenkins, council leader Nick Forbes and Tony Durcan, the city’s director of culture, libraries and lifelong learning.
Mr Docherty said: “We have agreed that we’ll work together with the council to see if we can find constructive, positive ways of continuing to fund the arts together. Now is the time for everybody to reflect and give the council space to consider its options.”
Alison Clark-Jenkins was also heartened by the meeting, even suggesting: “It felt like it might have been a turning point.”
There had been agreement for her team to work with Mr Durcan’s to look at the kind of funding that could be available to the arts. It might include “some clever use of existing money” and maybe even some continued revenue funding.
Mr Durcan suggested the council could help arts organisations by accessing loans at a more competitive rate than could be found on the open market.
Another who has urged “quiet diplomacy” is businessman Paul Callaghan, chairman of the Leighton Group and of Live Theatre, who – in an article called The Funding of Arts and Culture in an Age of Austerity – said now was the time for people from all sides to “come together around the table so that the issues can be better understood and solutions found and agreed upon”.
The possibility of a potential total withdrawal of council support for all art and culture had caused “genuine anger and concern”, he said, while the argument played out in the media spotlight had “done much to damage the reputation of the city and the region as a place where arts and culture are cherished and encouraged and which have played an extremely important role in the resurgence of the region in the last two decades”.
But just as nations edging towards “war-war” continue with “jaw-jaw” even as the troops are being mobilised, it seems diplomacy and a more direct approach are going hand in hand here.
Anthony Baker, director of Dance City, said yesterday: “We’re looking at a very measured and considered campaign really. We don’t believe a 100% cut is the way forward, that there must be other ways, but stomping around a lot isn’t going to help anyone.
“I don’t think the message (on the postcards) is too strident. It’s just a very clear statement, saying no to 100% because we don’t think it’s helpful to anybody, economically or artistically.
“The main problem is with central government and its funding formula for local government, so I’m sympathetic to Nick Forbes’s problem but I don’t agree with the 100% cut to the arts.”
The problem always faced by the arts – The Arts – is that they can seem like an effete luxury enjoyed by the privileged few. But all the arts bosses I meet in the North East are genuinely keen to cater for everyone. They have to be. Public funding comes with strings attached, one of them being accessibility.
The Arts Council’s mission statement is about providing “great art for all”. And that means all. No effort on that front means no money to invest in artistic programmes or commissions.
Meanwhile, as talk of funding cuts makes headlines, arts organisations are helping to attract significant inward investment.
A stone’s throw from Elswick’s closure-threatened public library, primary school children are engaged in a £500,000, three-year classical music experiment.
All have been given a free instrument and are getting regular tuition to raise their opportunities and aspirations.
That national money was won by The Sage Gateshead (part-funded by Gateshead Council) working with dedicated individuals at Newcastle City Council.
With city council support, Live Theatre on Newcastle Quayside has been able to invest £400,000 in turning an old school into a base for small creative business (the plans don’t end there).
Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, meanwhile, is about to bid for heritage lottery money for a £3m refurbishment of Newcastle’s Hatton Gallery to include better education facilities. And what of Seven Stories, with its valuable collection of children’s literature, which has just had national status bestowed upon it?
Imagine a national arts institution in London having 100% of its funding cut. Yet chief executive Kate Edwards faces the prospect of her council funding going down in stages from £180,000 to zero in 2015-16.
That is not just a local but a national disgrace ... and that, perhaps, is where the thrust of future campaigning should lie.
Yesterday cultural leaders and Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes met shadow culture minister Dan Jarvis at Newcastle Civic Centre. Backed by North East MPs, it ought to be a case of great minds thinking alike.
Perhaps now the passionate postcard messages and the quiet diplomacy can fashion themselves into a co-ordinated and effective defence of a cultural sector that is valued by many and benefits others who might not even know it.
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