TAITMAIL Going nuts in May

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The Covid experience has taught us a lot about the value of art and how it is valued, and many see the government’s apparently new attitude as positive. 

The extra £408m for the arts in the Budget was a surprise – the £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund was only ever going to be enough to recover the losses of the last year, if that, not to plan development. But it was interesting that while most of the new money is to get museums and theatres open in May there is £18.5m specifically for “cultural community projects”. What they might be has not been defined, but the best hope is that the money will go to local authorities, preferably not all to shore up polling figures in Blue Wall constituencies as Sunak’s new £1bn Towns Fund seems to be. 
 
And that the intention is that the money goes to reviving communities through cultural enterprise, because that, it is becoming more and more clear, is where the recovery of our towns and cities will start. Companies like Slung Low in West Yorkshire that makes successful theatre with ordinary people in open spaces, STEAM Co from Paddington that takes creativity into school playgrounds, or Belgrade Theatre in Coventry that brought the world Theatre in Education. And it’s the faith of local authorities and businesses in these organisations, not of central government, that will start the recovery.
 
The end of lockdown announced last week as the cue for Coventry, City of Culture this year, to tell us again what its plans are. Having decided in October not to cancel the year but put it back a few months, the birthplace of George Eliot, Ellen Terry and the first tank was able declare this week that it would get under way on May 15, two days before theatres and museums can reopen. 
 
Coventry’s programme is firmly based on its own city streets and the people that walk them, having consulted those people, aiming to revive a once great city that has become lost since the Blitz ripped out its history and motor manufacture left. The Belgrade will be intimately involved but while its auditorium's delayed refurbishment is completed most of what it does will be in and among the community. Yes, that again. Local commerce has coughed up £1.5m towards the £30m cost of the programme, and throughout the year 5,000 volunteer City Hosts from the community will be on hand to guide, explain, advise and chat… and somebody has had enough faith in Coventry’s potential to invest £82m in doing up its railway station to greet visitors.
 
But it’s in another city that the idea of building recovery on the arts is being taken most seriously, perhaps the most cultivated city of its size which has never had a “city of” accolade, whose arts festival running the length of May each year is Britain’s third biggest and which once bid to be European Capital of Culture only to be pipped by Liverpool. Brighton, of course.
 
For the first time in more than half a century the festival was cancelled last year, but this week Andrew Comben, CEO of the festival and of its principal venue the Brighton Dome, announced that it will open on May 1, adapted but as multi-hued as ever, under the guest direction of Lemn Sissay who will dust off and add to what he was going to do last year.
 
And the determination to ensure there would be a 2021 festival has given birth to another, more profound, development: a plan to revive post-Covid Brighton and Hove through the arts.
 
That early bid to be European Capital of Culture 2008 gave birth to an organisation called the Arts & Creative Industries Commission Brighton & Hove. It failed to win the nomination but never stopped existing, though it is seldom the subject of gossip at the parish pump these days, and it has awoken to the siren of post-Covid revival under the chairmanship of, wouldn’t you know, Andrew Comben. It has gathered together all the arts organisations – 13 of them are in ACE’s national portfolio - in the city precincts and beyond to create a plan, the ABCD for Cultural Revival.
 
It’s born out of the realisation during the lockdowns that community-based arts organisations have emerged as the true power-drivers towards keeping communal life breathing, performing and even thriving. It’s almost literally grassroots but it has the backing of the city council, and a new “Governing Body” – so new it’s still labouring under its Orwellian shadow title – chaired by the B&H assistant director of culture.
 
Brighton’s arts sector has been phenomenally successful: in 2019 it was worth £1.5bn a year in turnover with more than 16,000 working in 6,100 creative businesses and whose performing arts was worth £329m alone. And which lost an estimated £450m last year. 
 
The report https://www.brightonepic.info/abcd begins with its own story: “In the middle of the storm, with livelihoods threatened and organisations at risk of collapse, Brighton & Hove’s cultural and creative sector came together. Over 100 creative workers: award winning artists and those just starting out, leaders and front-line staff of organisations large and small, those freelance and those salaried, participated in 17 conversations over two weeks in September 2020. With generosity, solidarity and common purpose, they focused on one of the most vital sectors to Brighton & Hove’s economy and reputation might recover from the crisis and find more sustainable and inclusive ways to grow in the future”.
 
ABCD stands for Arts & Ambition, Business, Communities & Collaboration and Digital & Delivery, and the operation is advertising for salaried staff. It has five working parts: the Engine Room identifying gaps in sector business support; Enliven Brighton employing creative and cultural businesses to boost the city centre and its retail economy; the Creative Communities Network designed to bring culture to all parts of the city through event management, training and support; and the Creative Worker Income Guarantee exploring whether targeted intervention will stop talent leaving. It’s all finely costed and the wheels are in motion to raise about £1m to run it.
 
Comben says the plan is particularly targeted at the arts freelancer for whom Brighton & Hove has long been a mecca, but who the government seems to have a stubborn blind spot for despite the vital importance of freelancers to the smooth working of creative industries - “so many people that have no organisation to cling to, who haven’t been furloughed, and all the other self-employment schemes that haven’t caught them”. 
 
How long will ABCD be in place? “We’ve said for two years” he says “but we’re also sure that things will grow out of it. The main thing we want to do is have a very clear focus over the next two years and we’ll see what emerges from there”.
 
And as the ABCD report puts it: “It starts from the knowledge that creative businesses and workers will be at the forefront of the city’s recovery and our community’s cohesion”.

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