After the Goldrush

After the Goldrush MARCH 2011

On Wednesday morning, 1,330 arts organisations across England logged on to their email accounts and scanned their inbox for a message, Sender: Arts Council England, Subject: Application for national portfolio funding.  All had applied for 2012-15 funding under the new National Portfolio scheme. Some had received grants since the (incidentally austere post-war) 1940s when strategic public investment in the arts first began. Others were throwing their hat in the ACE funding ring for the first time. I’m guessing all of them felt just a little bit sick as they waited.

ACE had warned us to expect an email between 7.30 and 9.30 a.m on Wednesday 30th March prior to a public announcement at 10.  Whether you’re girding yourself for bad news or waiting for good, it’s worth doing it in company and with a cup of strong coffee to hand. So at 7.30 on Wednesday morning I was sitting in Gusto Italiano in Sheffield with Laura Sillars, director of Site Gallery waiting for ‘that’ email.  At 8.01 the in-box pinged. Here we go. Good news? Bad news? In fact, excellent news for Site: we’ve been offered exactly what we asked for – which works out as a significant increase across the 3 years. After a scream and a hug, the reality for partners, colleagues and the sector as a whole starts to filter through the networks.

…nothing at all for Museums Sheffield’s contemporary art programme, big hikes for the South London Gallery and Yorkshire Dance…  At 8.30 we listen to Alan Davey, ACE’s chief executive, on Radio 4. The consensus is that ACE have managed the hit handed to them in the Coalition’s comprehensive spending review as well as could be hoped. There have been large cuts, but there has also been investment in 110 previously unsupported companies.

…less than expected for Music in the Round …nothing for Danceworks UK……nothing for the brilliant Third Angel…  At 8.40 I set off for Lincolnshire to meet with some of the venues and agencies who’d submitted national portfolio bids. As we drove, the text alerts kept sounding. Such was the scale of cuts that news of standstill funding (effectively a 5% cut) was being greeted as a victory.…standstill for Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Pilot Theatre…Audience Development Agencies all cut…

10.00 we arrive in Sleaford. Smiling faces all around as news spreads that The Hub /Arts NK / Lincolnshire One venues’ bid has won national portfolio status.  We’re working with groups in Lincolnshire to advise on strategic fundraising. Today it’s difficult for any of us to concentrate as the ‘switched to silent mobiles’ keep flashing...bad news for the Firebird Trust (Music) – bid rejected…

In fact music seems to be taking a hit nationally, with a trend for orchestras to take a 10 – 15% cut.  

…uplift for Lincolnshire Arts Trust (The Drill Hall) and new portfolio status for The Collection

…nothing for Wakefield Theatre Royal…

As we devour texts, emails and online news through the day I’m reminded of the time when all football matches kicked off at 3pm on a Saturday and Grandstand came to a climax with a tele-printer clunking the latest eagerly awaited scores and results across the screen. Eagerly awaited because you wanted to know a) if your own team had won, b) how the teams around you had fared and c) the likelihood of a jackpot on the pools.  In those terms, 1,330 teams kicked off, 638 lost. Of the losers, 206 had been previously been in the ACE premier league. Forecasts for anyone claiming a jackpot are very low indeed.

The arts funding system needed a shake-up, and it’s got one…

But how long will it take to rebuild the infrastructure, creativity and engagement at risk of being destroyed over the coming months?  Channel 4 are gathering a crowd-sourced online map of spending cuts. I have in mind a map of the British railway system before and after the infamous Beeching cuts in the early 1960s. The before map is a slightly eccentric network crossing from north to south and coast to coast, serving rural communities and urban sprawls in equal measure. It’s the reason the railway network carried on running despite continuous bombing in the Second World War – there was no great junction to destroy with a single blow, just lots and lots of mainlines, sidelines, shunting yards and even dead ends that had sprung up to serve communities, enthusiasts and – it’s true – wildly optimistic speculators. By 1961 that splendid diversity of purpose and use was turned into a reason to pull the plug on public investment in the railways and focus on roads instead. Would it be cynical to suggest that the fact the Minister of Transport owned a road building company may have affected this decision?

So who might a cynic suggest will benefit from the equivalent of Beeching’s axe being taken to the arts in 2011? In an age of austerity measures, it’s difficult to argue that arts should be exempt from measures that are being applied across the board. But are cuts of this level and at this speed truly wise or even necessary? We’re told by George Osborne that it’s the only way to address and reverse the dire state of our national finances. We all know the country’s bank balance is in the red, and we’ve all got a pretty good idea of how it got that way. But the UK’s national debt is lower than that of Italy, France, Germany, Japan and USA. So it’s very difficult not to conclude that the cuts, their speed and their targets are driven by ideology rather than economic necessity.