Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A further letter to Ed Vaizey

Those of you who have been following my In Battalions campaign will recall that Ed Vaizey wrote me (and by default, us) a highly dismissive letter attempting to debunk the findings of the report. This was disappointing to all of us, not least because Mr Vaizey has historically been known to take evidence seriously, and to be a strong supporter of the arts.

I wrote a draft response to Mr Vaizey's letter a while ago and circulated it for discussion at one of the In Battalions pub meetings. I'm grateful to everyone who came along and helped me think it through. (If you want to keep up with future such meetings, you can join the In Battalions Facebook group here - though it's set to private so you might need to find me on Facebook first.)  

I've been busy earning a living since then, but I have finally had time to re-draft my letter in light of that meeting. I have just sent it to Ed Vaizey, along with a note asking whether he will be attending tomorrow's arts and culture debate in the Commons, or signing Joan Ruddock's Early Day Motion expressing support for British arts and culture. (I'll let you know what he says.) 

Anyway, here is the letter. Please help me circulate it as you did with the original In Battalions report. It's important we keep up the pressure on this important issue.

Mr Ed Vaizey MP
Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries
House of Commons

18 June 2013

Dear Mr Vaizey,

Thank you for your letter dated 16 April 2013, responding to my report In Battalions, about the state of new theatre writing. I'm pleased and grateful that you have taken the trouble to respond in such detail.

Naturally, I'm disappointed that the bulk of your letter seeks to dismiss the concerns raised in my report. I have to admit I was surprised by this. Among many of my colleagues in the arts, you enjoy the reputation of being a Culture Minister who listens to evidence, and even intervenes personally to act in the interests of British arts and culture.

It is well-known that you were instrumental in the Bush Theatre securing its terrific new premises in the Old Shepherd's Bush Library, and that you also stepped to the rescue of the National Youth Theatre when it was in difficulty. With an art historian and an arts fundraiser in your immediate family, your background and interests clearly intersect with ours. On a personal level you are affable and approachable, and an engaging and witty speaker. You have clocked up many years as Culture Minister, both in office and in opposition, when you could easily have moved on to other, higher profile departments. This has not gone unnoticed or unappreciated in the arts world. In short, we like you. None of us want to fight you over this issue. On the contrary, we want to work with you to help solve this problem. But that does require fully engaging with good faith evidence when it comes along.

I remain concerned after reading your letter that perhaps some of my report was misunderstood, or had been summarised and simplified for you by a colleague within the DCMS. In the spirit of putting politics aside and having a constructive conversation, I would like to make a few clarifications.

You say in your letter that you do not accept the "predictions ... fears and concerns" in my report. But In Battalions didn't just contain speculation. It described in detail the very real cuts and cancellations which are already taking place - the Octagon in Bolton abandoning its studio programme of new plays; Theatre Centre postponing a tour for financial reasons; companies such as Out of Joint and Action Transport returning to their back catalogue rather than risk new plays; youth theatres being closed down across the country.

In confining your response to simply listing the Arts Council investment which hasn't yet been cut, you risk overlooking the very serious reality on the ground. Many theatres are experiencing multiple funding cuts from local authorities, reduced private sponsorship and reduced fees for their work.

In your letter you cite Paines Plough as an example of a new writing company which has had an increase to their Arts Council investment. Paines Plough in fact featured in In Battalions. Their co-artistic director James Grieve made a lengthy and articulate contribution, in which he described in some detail how, despite their Arts Council increase, the company's overall income had actually gone down. This is due to regional venues, to which Paines Plough tour, receiving multiple cuts of their own and so no longer being able to afford the fees which Paines Plough were once able to command.

This is part of a wider point about theatre's interconnectedness. Elsewhere in my report, English Touring Theatre (ETT) credits smaller touring companies such as Paines Plough with 'laying the ground' with regional audiences so that ETT can tour larger scale product and find an audience for it.

In using the example of Paines Plough to try to refute my arguments, you appear unaware that Paines Plough were in fact instrumental to making my point in the first place. I can't help but be concerned that someone in the DCMS has unhelpfully or misleadingly briefed you.

Another example: your letter cites increased Lottery spending on the arts. While this is of course welcome, the fact is that Lottery funding maintains the Arts Council's Grants for the Arts programme, which is for individual projects. It cannot be spent on theatres' running costs, including organisational research and development activity surrounding new plays. For client organisations, this is covered by the Arts Council's Grant-in-Aid from Government, which is steadily declining, and braced to receive further cuts. As I hope you are aware, a recent Arts Council rule change now means that client organisations in receipt of this regular funding are now entirely excluded from applying for top-up project funding from Grants for the Arts. This means that one-off, short term or pilot projects – such as those aimed at nurturing new playwrights – cannot be funded on an ad hoc basis, and have to now come out of core funding. This adds a greater burden on what that ever-shrinking core funding is expected to stretch to.

This is a subtle nuance, not easily reduced to a bullet point in a briefing. But it is also perhaps an example of where people such as myself, and others working within the sector day in and day out, are better placed to brief you about these complexities than civil servants.

A section of your letter refers to an Arts Council meeting in which a group of 40 playwrights received advice on how to apply directly for funding from Grants for the Arts. In citing this as evidence of the Government's investment in the sector, you overlook that these writers are having to come to the Arts Council directly precisely because the infrastructure of theatre companies which once employed them is shrivelling.

It's important to understand that for playwrights, unlike other types of writing, the text is not the finished product - the production is. But the capacity to produce new plays, with costumes, props, sets, actors and a paying audience (which is ultimately what brings the money in) is also being damaged by Government cuts. Playwrights' ability to write, through individual applications for project funding, is only half the picture. We need a thriving infrastructure around us to then produce those play scripts. There's no point funding writers to write plays which never get seen.

You go on to cite certain figures in your letter. I have checked them with the Arts Council, and I could drill down into many of them for you, but for now I will confine my response to one example.

You state that "Overall funding for this year for the organisations mentioned in the report stands at £66m set against a figure of £50m for 2011/2012, an increase of over 30%." While this is technically true, it may surprise you to learn that the £66m figure you cite includes a one-off grant of £16m to London's National Theatre for their capital redevelopment project NT Future. This is not comparing like for like, because previous and subsequent years will not contain this figure. Take it away, and the picture is significantly less distorted. Unfortunately, doing that means that the headline '30% increase' suddenly becomes a real terms decrease of 2.3%.

I refuse to believe that this is disingenuous spin on your part. I am too convinced by your credentials as a genuine supporter of the arts. But I do worry that you're not being well-briefed. One unfortunate side effect of that is to create a sense of conflict with the sector you are overseeing - a situation which is not helpful to either us or you. But more seriously, it also means that you might be making important decisions, which affect our livelihoods, with only a partial understanding of the facts.

If there is one thing I would like you to take away from my report, it is this: irrespective of whatever funds may or may not still be available, there is a climate of fear and instability taking hold in the arts. This is preventing companies from feeling able to take a risk on new talent. This is being caused by two things: disproportionate targeting of the DCMS by the Treasury (3% in 2010, 21% in 2011 and a further 8% this week - far more than most other departments) and continued uncertainty around your Government's level of ideological commitment to British arts and culture.

Your letter reiterates your Government's support for arts and culture - this is welcome. But as playwrights know only too well, actions speak louder than words. And however unintentional, over time, actions add up to a story.

For arts and culture professionals, the key actions of your Government so far have been: a wholly unnecessary 20% cut to the BBC licence fee shortly after taking office (the license fee is not even Treasury expenditure); abolishing support at university level for Humanities subjects; abolishing the UK Film Council; forcing the closure of Creative Partnerships; killing off the A Night Less Ordinary young people’s ticket scheme; doing nothing to encourage local Councils to protect investment in their cultural institutions; repeatedly and disproportionately cutting the DCMS; and ongoing attempts to downgrade creative subjects in our schools through the imposition of the English Baccalaureate against all professional advice.

Needless to say, the story which these actions add up to is not a happy one. But it isn't too late to change the script.

You are probably aware of the reach and impact of In Battalions in the theatre industry and beyond. It has been downloaded almost 9,000 times, been read at the highest levels of the Arts Council, attracted support from the film, TV and radio sectors and received widespread press coverage.

Your letter dismissing my report has had similar circulation. It has already alienated theatre directors, actors, playwrights and audiences up and down the country. But it isn't too late to put that right. There is a valuable opportunity here to more fully support us at what you yourself acknowledge is a difficult time. Several In Battallions campaign meetings have now taken place and hundreds have joined the In Battalions Facebook group. My colleagues are universally astonished that our Culture Minister is so dismissive of our concerns. It simply doesn't fit with the Ed Vaizey we know, and who has gone to such lengths to support us in the past.

I would repeat again my request that you meet with a small delegation of playwrights and theatre directors to hear our concerns, and our ideas for solutions. We want to work with you on this, but we need you to put party politics and ideology aside and listen to the evidence.

Please be our Culture Minister. We like you, but more importantly, we need you.

Yours sincerely,

Fin Kennedy

This letter is also available for download and circulation as a PDF from Scribd.com here:


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