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Monthly Archives: October 2009

The collapse and reforming of the banking system has had obvious effects on the arts, most of them blows.  Taking the most sweeping view, the banks can be scapegoated for  our worship of money, greed, imprudence and blamed now for the recession and for the medium to long term reductions in public expenditure which we will need to make. And then for the decline in corporate and individual sponsorship and giving, which makes up a significant part of the economy for arts and cultural institutions and where 70% of London institutions report a drop in income.  Some of the trusts and foundations which have supported our arts have also had to call a halt to funding while investment income is low.

But this week’s news that Lloyds TSB Foundation Scotland is suspending its grant-making activities for the foreseeable future has sent shock waves through Scotland. The Foundation has been  more than a supporter, its has enabled activity throughout Scotland that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.  Since 1986  it has provided £85m to charities in Scotland, to the most disadvantaged groups through a wide range of general grants as well some targetted, like young people affected by drugs abuse and its capacity building support.

The role of Lloyds TSB in the arts is pivotal because of its support of many community arts programmes, particularly through part funding of staff.  Many of these community programmes simply cant earn any more money to make ends meet.  Many of them cant achieve some public sector funding because they dont meet the artistic quality thresholds framed by the purse holders.  So Lloyds TSB has been a godsend, funding artistic activities which would not happen otherwise, engaging communities who would not be engaged otherwise.

A scroll through the 2008 general awards includes sums to :

  • Project Ability Ltd working with 32 Black and Ethnic Minority disabled
  • Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy for a Music Therapist
  • Drake Music Scotland Towards the salary costs of the Artistic Director
  • Dynamica Drum Corps To purchase new instruments £ 2,450
  • Visual Statement Towards the salary of the full-time Production Assistant/Choreographer in order to deliver a pilot project to disadvantaged young people within Greater Easterhouse
  • Sounds of Progress To contribute to the salary of the Music Development Officer
  • Toonspeak Young People’s Theatre Towards the salary of the full-time Artistic Director
  • Creative Therapies to support the salary and running costs of Art Beat, an art therapy project supporting children and young people affected by substance misuse

Most of these are unknown outside their communities and most are in Glasgow, most are firmly rooted in local communities.  If it were left to the public agencies entirely, they wouldn’t survive.  Take Visual Statement, Founded 30 years ago in darkest Easterhouse by Danny Dobbie, a local lad who defied all expectations by going to ballet school but, unlike Billy Elliot, came back to his own ‘scheme’ and started a dance school. Easterhouse was at that time widely known as the worst slum in Europe and perhaps the biggest, poorest,  unhealthiest and most violent.   At the interval of a show, full of razamatazz,  in a delapidated, disused, dank and damp school, before the shiny new Platform Arts Centre was built, the whole audience went out for a cigarette at the interval.  The community is engaged in the arts in a way that a strategic public arts worker on a three year project will never achieve let alone sustain.

For this example, Lloyds TSB  has supported many more over the years, often with three year funding attached.

Meanwhile, in the bigger world of private investment in the arts, we look to Arts and Business.  In return for over £7m each year from the public purse, A and B champions private investment in the arts,  conducts research, encourages sponsorship and partnerships and runs some great parties and award ceremonies.  One of the current competitions is the Lloyds A nd B award for innovation.

The Lloyd’s A&B Innovation Prize recognises the most innovative and progressive partnerships of the last 18 months. Each finalist is an example of how innovation and strategic risk taking can lead to unique projects that expose brands to new markets, deepen audience engagement and develop new audiences.

In particular, the successful implementation of innovative solutions through new channels and methods from which both the arts and the business have benefited is the key to the Prize.

A good and glittering prize – Scottish Opera , National Theatre and Accenture are up for it for their partnership and that ticks all the right boxes for partnership, innovation and sparkle.  This prize is for additional activity from clever organisations.  But the Lloyds TSB Foundation supports more important community grass roots activity.  Surely one of the lessons we have learned as a society recently is the value of the less glittering prizes, community activity?   More and more of these decisions will fall to the public sector agencies and hard decisions will need to be taken so that we sustain core artistic capacity at all levels to survive the recession.

Meanwhile, the fall of the banking sector might deliver some public benefit as the RBS art collection might go on display.  Hooray!

from Andrew Niddrie's Craigmillar Flickr stream

Over the last few weeks governments in Scotland, Wales and Ireland have declared commitment to the value of the arts,  culture and creative industries in recovery from recession, whether as a tonic for dented spirits, an antidote to an unbalanced life, to strengthen  national cultural identity. ..or for international competitiveness.

The rallying call, particularly in Ireland, is expressed in the passionate tongues of art and culture more than in the lexicon of the more contemporary newspeak  of  the creative economy, smart economy and innovation on which many a paper has been written and on which a glut of autumn conferences will proclaim and chatter.

But winning the hearts and minds of national politicians is only one part of the equation, particularly in the UK where local authorities as a block represent the largest funders of the arts and culture, far larger than the arts councils, and are major providers as well of museums, libraries, theatres and art centres: owning buildings, supplying services and employing staff.

In Scotland, the arts community has been focussed on national structures of late, concerned to make sure  that the new single agency Creative Scotland will be better than the Scottish Arts Council without any loss of funding for specific art forms.

In the meantime, local authorities are having to deal with accelerating  and medium to  long term reductions in resources and having to make cuts  in services and reductions in staff.  The arts and culture are not a statutory function.  In Scotland, the Single Outcome Agreements with Scottish Government do not signpost arts and culture as first order services.  So champions for the arts – artists, creative enterprises and their supporters need to get vocal at local level.

There tends to be a clustering of creative professionals  in metropolitan areas, cities and some rural areas, as immortalised by Richard Florida and these are active, connected and articulate.  Dublin Central Arts workers are becoming more and more political in their campaigning.  In Glasgow, where Culture and Sport Glasgow has an annual budget of  £96m (compare this with maybe £60m for Creative Scotland), audiences and participants exceeding 13m and a commensurately expert team  to boot, the benefits of culture are being evidenced in terms of proven impact on health and wellbeing, demonstrating a politic approach to establishing local value.

But what is happening outside of creative cities and rural areas?  In great swathes of Scotland, the arts and creative community is ever changing and without a local focus.   Arts and creative people are natural nomads, moving to where the pastures are fertile.  I am as guilty as the next creative professional, living in Fife for the meantime but without any professional roots in my community.  Creative professionals who live in my area work in Edinburgh, Glasgow or Dundee running some of our major institutions, or write, make music and art all over the world.

We need creative hubs in all parts of Scotland, where there is a focus for the arts and creative communities. And we all need to get local.

Artists operate in a delicately balanced economy, where it can be very hard to make a living from artistic endeavour.  That is why public sector subvention is so critical, through financial instruments such as tax exemption, bursaries and grants.

But as public expenditure gets smaller and smaller, artists and artistic enterprises are now being squeezed so hard they are squealing.  In Ireland, the end to artists tax exemption is one of a range of cuts on the table.  In Britain, Tracey Emin is threatening to leave the UK if (and when?) we have to put the taxes up to 50%.

Public subvention in only one part of the triangle as the economy of the arts is also dependent on the forces of earned income- through sales, box office and the like and  private giving  – sponsorship, corporate and individual giving.

Unsurprisingly, corporate and private sponsorship is well down on the recent fatter years.  And now, the box office is beginning to dive in many theatres.  Although its too blunt to divide theatre into ‘entertainment’  (escapist, fun, easy) and ‘art’ (difficult, through-provoking, poetic, political),  West End theatre is flourishing while others are struggling including London’s Tricycle Theatre.  It receives £ 3/4m from ACE but, despite an additional £361k from ACE’s Sustain Fund, the Theatre is reportedly struggling because audiences are staying away from political or ‘art’  theatre and because of the drop in charitable donations.  This is a story which is unfolding across the British Isles.

We need to preserve the artistic capability to survive through recession.  We need to support artists in our communities, whether these are local, regional or national.  And that means that public funders must make hard choices.  They need to choose who and what to support, recognising they can’t support everyone.  The Arts Council of England is investing £40m through its Sustain fund and so far this is largely to support the most established of arts organisations from the Royal Opera House, the Halle Orchestra to Yorkshire Sculpture Park.. But the Tricycle story signals that this may not be enough and so funders will be forced to be ever more discerning about who to put into the lifeboats and who to leave to sink or swim, through changing their programme, merging, or other innovations which cost less.

We also need strong leadership and powerful advocacy.  In Ireland, the National Campaign for the  Arts  campaigning against cuts proposed by An Bord Snip and the Commission on Taxation, has evinced strong support from business leaders and artists, who confidently express the value of the arts and artists, including their contribution to reputation, employment, tourism, the broader creative economy and the all important national psyche.

What is critical about this is the championing of art and artists and expressing the high value that artists have for our societies, whether or not this is recognised through tax exemption or financial rewards.  As we move away from a value system which is based entirely on money, artists can take the lead.

The NT live season streamed its second show last night.  All’s Wells that Ends Well is one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ plays which is unlikely to be seen by many. Firstly, its a ‘ problem play’ because of its genre defying characteristics and idiosyncracies.  And secondly, the production resources needed to solve the problem – more than met in Marianne Elliot’s wonderful, grim and fantastic fairytale production with very fine performances, a wonderful design and all the creative and technical resources afforded by the National Theatre – are scarcely available outside the NT, RSC, Globe etc.  It simply doesn’t stack up for a regional theatre to produce this play.

So last night the audience for this show was seated not only in the Olivier Theatre but in 70 cinemas throughout Britain. Most of us were seeing a show to which we would not have access otherwise and that is a great thing.  The quality of the experience is fantastic – as an audience you are in the room with the performers, live but also have the advantages of being in great and moving seats, up close.  And, for those of us who live far away from London, we haven’t spent a fortune or increased our carbon footprint.  So it is certainly the way forward for work which our regional theatres won’t or can’t produce.

But its only the beginning.  NT Live is a spearhead for change in theatre programming and participation throughout the UK and for cultural planning.

Taking All’s Well that Ends Well as an example – its just the beginning for other plays by local writers and for participative projects  on What Happens Next or Be careful what you wish for or Why that could never happen in Perth or Why do clever women want men who behave badly etc etc

The next issue to sort out is venues.  We need creative hubs throughout the land, neutral, enabling spaces where live screenings, performances and participative activities can all mingle and mash up with the local communities.  Like the Dukes in Lancaster. The Dukes remodelled itself two years ago, leaving behind the sausage machine of traditional producing theatre to become more open, mixed, varied and connected with Lancaster and Lancashire.  Yesterday the Dukes programme included their own production of  Of Mice and Men, Live Theatre’s Motherland, and a full creative learning programme so couldn’t accomodate the  screening of NT Live in their modest multiplex. But they did screen Phedre and will do more. The  audiences at the Dukes happily browse and buy in all the spaces and are treated to the same standards of ‘customer care’  – or good old Front of House management no matter what the event.

This is in contrast to the Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh which is a fine little cinema – not a creative hub.  Many of us found the queues at the box office frustrating – because only one sales assistant  was on duty, I guess because for movies you dont have all to be there at the beginning and you filter in during the ads.  But the audience at the Cameo last night was a theatre audience and we wanted to be on time!  The queues for the loo were just like at old theatres, so that was familiar.  And the Front of House presence was not the friendly Front of House Manager which most theatres provide, but some very assertive market researchers determining our demographic details.

As the NT live stream flows, we need the venues, the interface with local partners and other advances like letting all the audiences communicate with each other.  Sure we can tweet.  But we should also applaud.

Bring it on.