Friday, February 28, 2014

In Battalions in the House of Lords

In an interesting post-script to my recent series of blog articles summarising the speakers at my In Battalions Delphi study launch in Parliament, I have just been alerted to a subsequent (quite lengthy) mention of the report, and the event, in the House of Lords earlier this month. 

On 12 Feb Lord Mawson instigated a debate in the House of Lords on the current challenges faces UK Arts and Cultural Organisations. The Earl of Clancarty, who attended the In Battalions launch, made a thoughtful contribution in which he made significant reference to both the report and the speakers we presented at the launch, as well as drawing a few conclusions of his own. 

You can read it in context on Hansard here, but I reproduce the Earl's speech here, as it works as a standalone piece in its own right.

Thank you, the Earl of Clancarty. It's terrific to see this issue being taken seriously and given such thoughtful consideration in the Upper House.

Thank you too to my excellent speakers, who clearly made a strong case and gave the Earl some tangible examples, and food for thought.

The Earl of Clancarty: 

My Lords, at the latest Performers’ Alliance All-Party Parliamentary Group meeting last month, we heard a presentation of the second Delphi study, In Battalions, by Fin Kennedy and Helen Campbell Pickford. I came away from that presentation with three concerns in particular. The first is the key question they identified from discussion with those working in theatre: in what ways can theatre-makers, theatres and the Arts Council work together to help to protect risk-taking on new work and new talent, without creating significant expense?

The second concern which became clear was that the arts organisation most at risk is the organisation of one, the playwright, the individual artist who, if not wholly, certainly significantly provides the raison d’ĂȘtre for the existence of the larger arts organisations, the theatres and companies which facilitate new work. That is after acknowledging that there is much collaborative work within the theatre, as within the arts as a whole. If that crucial individual risk-taking and experimentation is not nurtured, the arts will not progress but stagnate.

At the same event, we heard presentations from Giles Croft, artistic director of the Nottingham Playhouse, and from Elizabeth Newman, associate director of the Bolton Octagon. The message that rang out loud and clear was how increasingly difficult and time-consuming it is to try to balance the books and bring through new work, rather than rely on tried and tested productions.

My third concern is that it is entirely clear to those working in the arts, if not to the Government, that there is no substitute for public funding. Nothing really replaces what it achieves. Arts organisations are being told to “adapt”, a euphemism for becoming more commercial so that they may survive, but that change means that the very thing that made them worth while in the first place is in danger of being lost. This potential loss of risk-taking, entirely due to a lack of funding, becomes a more critical problem the further away we go from London.

In the year since the regional debate on the arts introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, much has already changed. We have had the report Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital, mentioned by noble Baroness, Lady Kidron,showing that public spending on the arts is now 15 times greater in London than in the regions. Indeed, the Nottingham Playhouse, which is facing a possible 100% cut in grant from the local council, is located in the East Midlands region, which this report identifies as being the most affected. The devastating Local Government Association report of 2012 is now joined by last year’s equally devastating Joseph Rowntree Foundation study, which predicts that arts and cultural funding by local councils may fall within a few years to almost nothing, and in December we had further local authority funding cuts.

In the short term, I am pessimistic about the discrepancy of funding between London and the regions. The discrepancy is increasing mainly because public funding is being cut—local authority funding, of course, but also the decreased reserves of core funding that will inevitably be hoovered up by London and the bigger institutions. Things will not change substantially until two things happen: first, the funding cuts are reversed and, secondly, the regions and the regional cities obtain greater autonomy, because arts and culture will follow political power. In this sense, of course, the arts are in the same boat as every other area of government subsidy. The regions need to be making their own funding decisions for their own arts production as well as services, and they need to have the money to do so. In addition, a future Government must bring in statutory provision for the arts.

We have a Government who are interested in the arts and creative industries as an export product and for tourism, but are less interested in how the arts are nurtured and produced. I ask the Minister whether the DCMS could take a careful look at the composition of the Creative Industries Council, which helps to formulate policy and which has both a strong global and London-centric feel. It looks outwards but it does not back inwards towards arts production across the whole of the UK. There is no sense of that geography, and that is important.

My other question for the Minister is the same one that I posed to the noble Lord, Lord Nash, at Question Time today. How important do the Government think arts education in schools is as a pipeline into the creative industries, which we hear are now worth £8 million an hour to the UK economy? If the Government think that it is important then the DCMS should be concerned at the continuing fall in the take-up of art and design subjects in schools, as well as the threat that exists to arts higher education.

The In Battalions Delphi study contains 36 innovative proposals on ways to protect risk-taking on new work for the stage, despite austerity.

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