Disbelief all around has greeted the announcement that the Arts Council of England (ACE) is axing a fifth of the organisations it helps to fund. And it is not simply the loss of financial support that has angered arts practitioners, but the way in which the cuts have been made. The Arts Council only gave arts bodies 18 working days to lodge an appeal, after sending them a letter last week – what a nice Christmas present! Some are being forced to issue redundancy letters to staff because the cuts could mean they are trading while insolvent.
ACE chief executive, Peter Hewitt, who draws a salary of upwards of £152,000 per year, justified the withdrawal of arts funding from almost 200 organisations on grounds of “artistic concerns”. A spokeswoman for ACE claimed the distribution of funds was based on “the strength of the artistic output”. Hiding behind the spurious grounds of artistic quality, the cuts have a sinister logic. They damage areas of the country where arts provision is already spread thin.
The Northcott theatre in Exeter will lose the £547,000 ACE grant from April 2009, one third of its annual income – even though it has just undergone a £2.1m refurbishment! It is the only producing theatre between Plymouth and Bristol. In addition, the Bristol Old Vic, one of the oldest theatres in the UK, closed since July, may not be able to re-open. The smaller and the most vulnerable venues, whether in London or around the country, have been targeted in a sorry tale of bullying.
Two organisations promoting gay and lesbian events, Queer Up North and The Drill Hall in London, are being hit particularly hard. Funding for the Drill Hall is to be withdrawn within three months. Its chair Russell Gilderson has pointed out that the £250,000 cut will take place at a time when the Arts Council has the second highest number of staff in its history. “It calls itself the national arts development agency, but no one has ever seen a single national arts development strategy… And more to the point, exactly how does ACE see this as taking the arts forward into a climate of greater inclusion?” he said in a letter to The Guardian.
A small but extremely active and original company in London, the Bubble Theatre is appealing against a £420,000 cut in funding. Its chair, Sandy Craig, says: “We’ll have to close. I feel very angry. I feel there has been no process of consultation…” On a tiny budget, the Bubble runs four youth theatres, two adult theatre groups and one intergenerational band. It also works in 33 schools, attracting 43% of its participants from black, minority ethnic and refugee communities.
Director Jonathan Petherbridge said he was “gob smacked” by ACE’s claim that they had taken into account “the need to increase engagement and participation”. He told A World to Win: “If we want to build a broad theatre, we need to include a broad swathe of people. These decisions are being made by a narrow section of people for a narrow section of society. Instead of a diverse theatre, we will end up with boring theatre.”
In a fatuous speech at Tate Modern earlier this year, ex-PM Blair claimed that the arts would not suffer as a result of Olympics spending. Well, while it’s true that some major arts organisations will continue to benefit, New Labour is cutting off the oxygen to a host of truly creative organisations that have reached out to new audiences in culturally deprived areas. That is the real logic of the cultural apartheid underlying the Arts Council’s bureaucratic madness.