Charlotte Higgins in CiF on the ‘attack’ on the arts:
The Central Library in Sheffield opened in 1934, when my father was four. As a teenager and medical student in the 1940s and 50s, he would work there, an escape from the confined, cramped home he grew up in. It was, he remembers, “state of the art”: a grand public building with elegant, deco curves to the custom-made furniture, handsome timber bookshelves and bright brass handrails up the stairs.
And has this building been torn down to build a Tesco, or something?
The building remains elegant, but is now rather worn and tatty. Some of the 1930s furniture is still there, but much has been replaced by unprepossessing office desks and chairs. The paint is peeling from the toilet walls. It is worth the visit for the art on the top floor, but pick your time carefully: the gallery is open only four days a week, and shuts at 3pm. In common with other councils, Sheffield is wondering about the purpose of libraries in an information (and austerity) age, and is “consulting” on the future of its service.
As are many areas. There’s no more money left, remember? It was a Labour Chancellor who said that.
We’ll draw a veil over the fact that the ‘cuts’ – when you look at them in detail – don’t actually seem to be cuts at all, but rather slowdowns in spending, but one thing is clear – there are things we can afford, and things we can’t.
Public ‘art’ that no-one will pay their own money to go and see is likely to fall into the lesser category.
As the triumphal Olympic and Paralympic summer fades, and time is called on the large-scale, knock-’em-dead Cultural Olympiad work that was made to showcase British arts to a watching world, the industry faces a grim autumn. It is now, after Britain’s moment in the sun, that the cuts implemented in the spring will begin to show.
And how are they biting?
The picture is complex: England has lost 30% of its arts council budget, but with the proviso that only 15% should be passed on to “frontline” arts organisations. By March, English local-authority spending on the arts and culture will be down by 16% since 2009-10, but with the picture varying wildly: Somerset County Council, for example, has cut its arts provision by 100%. Scotland, notwithstanding damaging rows between artists and its funding body, Creative Scotland, is on standstill funding.
So, is Somerset a cultural wasteland? Will it be shunned by all right thinking people, damned as a backwards place of art-fearing heathens?
To the dismay of most who knew their work, Third Angel, a small experimental performance company based in Sheffield, has lost 100% of its Arts Council England grant of just over £33,360 – not even peanuts in the big picture of public spending, but lifeblood to them. At the Edinburgh fringe this year, I saw the company’s delicate, thoughtful show What I Heard About the World – a meditation on how the world is increasingly within our grasp, and yet all too frequently experienced via substitutes or simulcra.
It sounds like the sort of thing I’d never pay to see. Maybe that’s the problem?
It is fantasy to think that Third Angel could exist without public support…
Just not with the support of the public paying actual money to see them in sufficient quantities that they stand on their own two feet, I suppose?
At the opposite end of the country, I arrive in a sun-warmed farmyard at the end of a labyrinth of high-hedged lanes: the office of Take Art, an organisation that brings dance, theatre and performance to audiences in rural Somerset. Its neighbours, in the rose-covered outhouses, are an architect and a blacksmith.
You mean, businesses that provide what people want, and that make a profit, and don’t depend on a handout from the taxpayer?
But in the office, things are not as idyllic as they look. The workforce has halved since 2010. Against the wall lie banners with the slogan “We value the arts: against 100% arts cuts”, left over from 2010’s fruitless struggle against Somerset Council. They have lost around £70,000 a year, taking into account cuts from local councils, too. They still have their arts council funding of £159,000 a year (£30,000 less than they asked for). But the result is that they are providing half the shows they used to.
Still seems like too much to me!
One of the organisation’s most prominent schemes is its Rural Touring programme. It’s a way of getting excellent-quality performances to village halls, and serving areas where access to the arts would otherwise be nonexistent: for 30% of their audiences, says Lister, the work that Take Art brings is the only art they get to see. Often this is quite adventurous: experimental theatre company Kneehigh (Brief Encounter, The Red Shoes) was a regular in their earlier days. Lister points out that, in rural areas, getting in the car and driving to Bath or Bristol may not be an option, as fuel prices rise and pressure on household purses increases; meanwhile theatres in the smaller towns, such as the Merlin in Frome, have been hammered by Somerset’s cuts and are clinging on to life.
You know, I think we have to face facts – with the economy in the state it’s in, and technology increasing to the point at which a well-acted and directed film is the click of a mouse away, there may be no future for amateur dramatics on the public teat any more.
The arts are not yet at crisis point. There is no apocalypse, but the damage is real. There will be changes, some of them obvious: a local museum reducing its hours and programme; a local theatre having more dark nights, and fewer shows of real imagination. Other changes will be less tangible: a teenager not getting the spark of inspiration that makes her decide to train as an architect, a village community less bound together by shared experience.
Yes, that’s what ‘austerity’ means. Everyone shares the burden. Even ‘artists’.