Judy Terry is a marketing professional who stood down as a councillor in May.
London’s theatreland is the envy of the world, and it was a stroke of genius for some productions by the National Theatre and RSC to be streamed into cinemas around the country. I and friends were recently thrilled by ‘A Streetcare named Desire’ sitting comfortably in our local film theatre, having already been gripped by various Shakespeare interpretations. A delightful evening, without all the expense of a train journey and overnight stay…
I was brought up in London, and continued to commute for many years after moving out; the museums, architecture, parks and the sheer history of the place are part of my DNA.
But, theatre and the arts don’t stop at the M25. In the last few months I was introduced to opera evenings held in a magnificent converted barn in the middle of Suffolk, one of those hidden gems to be found across the country, which never receive any external funding – yet are invaluable to enhancing quality of life, and could perhaps do more with just a little injection of public money.
The value of culture and the arts to our economy, tourism, skills, community cohesion and wellbeing can never be under-estimated. I am passionate about making it accessible to people of all ages, from all communities – something to be enjoyed and celebrated, and to be part of. Culture encourages aspiration and inspiration, whatever one’s academic abilities.
However, the very word ‘culture’ has become synonymous within sections of society with ‘elitism’ and I regret that the Arts Council has a lot to answer for in this respect because of its funding choices, not least its bias towards London, but also in propping up organisations which need reform and sound business management rather than yet more free cash.
It has a tendency to be somewhat sniffy about what actually constitutes ‘culture’ and the luvvies who dish out the finance are rarely other than patronising. More of the ‘we know best’ which pervades the public sector, when what we actually need is more flexibility, and fairness. A fairness which means greater equality of funding to the regions – and not merely to a select few institutions.
I spent nine years negotiating with the Arts Council over funding, as the Executive/Cabinet member with culture as one of my responsibilities, first in Ipswich and then on Suffolk CC. I sat on various publicly-funded arts organisations’ boards to represent the taxpayer (no voting rights), and was surprised at their lack of financial discipline; in their arrogance, they knew the Arts Council would bail them out for bad decision-making. And, it did, time after time, without sanction. Build projects were especially wasteful, being poorly designed and managed, whilst leasehold contracts were entered into without independent professional advice, leading to excessive rental increases and no break clauses. Despite this, they always wanted more funding, more buildings, more staff…
The Arts Council seemed very partisan, offering ever more generous payouts to this select few preferred organisations, without tight oversight of income/expenditure, and despite a failure to engage with the general public, but at the expense of those organisations which did! I strongly believe that publicly owned and funded theatres, for example, have a responsibility to balance the books by putting on productions which people want to see, thereby subsidising the more esoteric material which can be less attractive to broader audiences; empty seats are hardly an advert for inclusiveness – but this is a lesson the Arts Council doesn’t appear to have learnt.
In contrast, I negotiated incentive schemes with those organisations demanding support, taking into account their total public funding streams coming from district and county councils, as well as the Arts Council. I withheld an element of their annual funding (which I cut on a phased basis) unless they met specific fiscal and inclusivity criteria. It wasn’t popular, and the AC didn’t like it, but it worked and I was able to reallocate some of the budget to equally deserving unfunded groups!
As local authorities struggle with their own budgets over the coming months, with inevitable threats to culture, remember that this sector should not be excluded from the need to improve efficiency and reduce costs, not least through joint management strategies and procurement. All too often councils are fearful of challenging the arts, and treat luvvies as a special case; they aren’t!
It’s a shame that so much of the arts establishment, and the BBC, have such leftish tendencies because, actually, Labour don’t agree with culture being accessible to ‘ordinary people’ – and I will tell you why. If embraced from an early age, it offers a lifetime of learning and aspiration; always discovering something new and interesting, as evidenced by the recent analysis by the Office for National Statistics’s ‘Wellbeing’ programme, Britain’s official happiness index. It shows that participation in arts and culture among the 16-24-year-olds has risen by seven per cent in the past five years, making this generation probably the most civilised and cultured since records began. That is the best possible news, and we owe it to them to ensure that culture remains a pivotal investment for the future – but it must be money well spent.
Ten years ago, when the Conservatives took over the leadership of Ipswich after 25 years of Labour neglect, the cultural and leisure services were virtually non-existent. On the verge of closure, the town’s two theatres needed total refurbishment, as did the two swimming pools and sports centres, and the town’s prime museum assets were either on loan or in storage, with the museums themselves in decay with half the rooms closed to the public. We inherited a £25m backlog on building maintenance and minimal reserves despite escalating council tax (sound familiar?) but all these facilities were costing millions to run.
As colleagues sorted out the finances, halving the maintenance backlog, whilst rebuilding reserves, we invested in all these buildings, to bring them up to a good standard and reconfigured the management, reducing costs, whilst improving what was on offer. We reclaimed our loaned artefacts, created a Constable gallery to display the UK’s second largest collection, and set up a joint museum service with Colchester. We attracted the Saatchi gallery to display some of its own collections in Ipswich, raising the profile of the local arts scene, and set up a social enterprise to run the film theatre.
It wasn’t easy, people don’t like change, but we had a vision – and, most importantly, a clear strategy – which included the renovation of two fine medieval churches, empty for decades, one as a community centre, run by a social enterprise, and the other a concert venue, run by a music group.
Now Labour have been in charge again for nearly four years, they are gradually dismantling much of what we achieved because they simply don’t value culture! The council leader, and now parliamentary candidate, ranted at a council meeting when in opposition that it was a waste of money and ‘elitist’.
It isn’t. However, I do think – as with so much of the public sector – grant funding needs more stringent control.
Which means abolishing the Arts Council. Cutting out its bureaucracy (and expensive offices) would allow more money to be allocated regionally, preferably through the Local Enterprise Partnerships, and directly to the Mayor of London. Not only would it force organisations out of their comfort zones, imposing business disciplines but encourage a proactive approach to securing match fund through sponsorship. Small theatre groups, working with excluded pupils, and the elderly, which are presently regarded as ‘not worthy of AC support’ yet have award winning reputations, would be eligible to join the queue.
Voluntary groups could make bids to realise their own ambitions for music and art festivals, local museums to record local history, which will otherwise be lost – all of which would support their local economies through tourism and education.
Some people would regard such a suggestion as heresy. However, when there’s so much talk of devolving more power to the regions, frankly the Arts Council is redundant – it’s also unaccountable.
If local authorities also agreed to pool their cultural budgets, allocated through a single small team, working with the LEP, you’d be surprised how much further the money would go! Especially if European funding was also targeted.