Winners and losers at arts centres during today’s public sector strikes

Bust of Jimmy Reid, trade union activist and writer: by Kenny Hunter
at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery: ©Kenny Hunter

Today’s strike action by public servants has closed large parts of the nation’s cultural institutions and local authority services.  Libraries are closed and the fabulous new Scottish National Portrait Gallery has had to disconnect its first day of opening to the public with St Andrews Day in a sad case of poetic injustice.  Libraries and museums are bound in to public services, carrying the heavy weight of civic responsibility in conserving collections  held in trust for the nation or in providing education and information. These civic cultural facilities which we support through our taxes are operated by public sector workers and today those workers are on strike over changes to their pensions.

The arts, on the other hand, are relatively unfettered by civic burdens. Free to take risks, make money and entertain as well as educate, stimulate and inspire, arts facilities are largely run by people without a pension. Most people who work in the arts do not enjoy the benefits of pensions and other terms and conditions associated with the public sector.  Most people who work in the arts are self-employed artists, actors, stage managers, dancers, writers and illustrators.  The majority of those who are able to earn a full-time living in the arts are the support staff, the managers, arts centre directors, box office staff and technicians and few enjoy the protected conditions of the public sector.

So today, some arts centres are flexing their entrepreneurial muscles and imaginatively engaging with their communities. Horsecross Arts in Perth are running music and dance workshops for children looking to get involved in the arts since their schools are closed. And for most, from the Corby Cube to the Brunton Theatre Musselburgh,  its business as usual even if they are run by a local authority.

A few municipal arts facilities are closed because of strike action like the Pontardawe Arts Centre,  and The Princess Royal Theatre.  But there are other closures  in arts centres where the local authority has put the arts out to trusts to operate, like Glasgow Life. Most local authorities establishing cultural trusts do so mostly to avoid paying VAT and Non Domestic Rates.  But in TUPEing staff over to the new trust, the old local authority terms and conditions apply and sometimes stick.  So the Tramway, one of the most innovative and risk taking contemporary arts centres in Europe which is part of Glasgow Life has had to close today and cancel a talk by artist Lili Reynaud-Dewar.  The talk, rather ironically is about the exhibition Jean Genet’s Walls, Speaking of Revolt, Media and Beauty.  But there will be no Speaking of Revolt today as workers at the Tramway strike to protest about pension changes.

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