TAITMAIL Don’t stop your culture!

DSYF! is the text message issuing from the postings of Idris Elba and his supporters, short for “Don’t Stop Your Future!” Their message is, of course, against knife crime which has reached epidemic proportions, particularly in London, Elba’s home.

But it could also be amended to refer to the cutting of cultural funding by local authorities – “Don’t stop your culture!”

Because the soft power of culture in our communities, our classrooms and on our housing estates is a tried and proven virtual weapon against the actual weaponry of the critical violent phase society seems to have fallen into, an age of knife crime. It is in serious peril.

Local councils are still the biggest support sector for arts and culture in this country, worth £1bn a year at the last count, probably worth £2.5bn in real terms, but official figures show that that spend as been cut across the board by 43%. So where the cultural spend per person in England was £116.57 in 2010-11, by 2022 it was £59.50. 

This week we learned that Suffolk needs to carve £64.7m out of its budgets in the next two years and has accordingly decided to cut 100% of its cultural funding, worth £500,000; Nottingham City Council is proposing to follow suit so that its support of the likes of Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham Playhouse, City Arts and Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature suddenly ends. At £198,000 the cultural spend being excised represents 0.02% of the council’s total budget. Humble sums against the bulk of the budgets involved, but councils are warning that they face financial oblivion, even taking into account government grants.

Those grants rose by 3% this year and this week the government, unnerved by media coverage of the Suffolk decision, announced that it had shaken the money tree and gathered £500m to help local authorities meet their social services obligation for the next year. 

Sounds good, until you know that the Local Government Association has also this week put out figures showing that our councils are facing a deficit of £4bn over the next two years. The vertiginous cost of living increases are threatening their sustainability, having already absorbed a 29% real terms cut in core spending power since 2010-11. Five councils have already declared themselves bankrupt, and there are more on the brink.

Everything is being scaled back, naturally starting with the non-statutory areas of responsibility, with first in line for cutting, as ever, the arts and culture. Theatres are likely to go dark, at least for part of the week, museums will lay off curators, art galleries will close.


Image courtesy of the Roundhouse

Main image courtesy of Art Against Knives

For many, culture at local level is the first step to a lifetime of creativity - everything from youth theatre to art classes to conversation cafes. London’s legendary Roundhouse has made it its mission to bring young people from underprivileged backgrounds, especially the council estates of north London, and introduce them to opportunities in creativity; in its catacomb studios and workshops it works with 7,500 14-to-30-year-olds a year and aims to double it by 2026.

“At the Roundhouse” its CEO and artistic director Marcus Davey told me this week “our creative opportunities are so important for young people, especially young people who might be facing other challenges in their lives - whether someone has mental health problems or is at risk of serious youth violence. By giving young people a safe space with dedicated support from our youth work team they are exposed to new, positive experiences and people. Alongside this, creativity proves time and time again that it can be the right mechanism for a young person to find their voice and help them build more positive futures. 

“The local authority cuts that we have seen, with more to come, to the arts across the UK will undoubtedly be devastating for arts organisations and the young people they work with, and they will further undermine the potential for arts organisations to play a powerful role in civic life.” 

During the pandemic it was the cultural sector that looked after its communities by moving classes online, running pen pal schemes, digitising output and engaging young people in music, dance, visual art and literature through their laptops and smart phones. In the shadow of the huge losses resulting from the pandemic shut-downs, virtual arts activity has blossomed in the last three years.

But community art is more than murals, local museums and after school dance classes; it works at the front line of societal issues. In 2008 a 21-year-old art student was left in a wheelchair by an unprovoked stabbing attack, and an exhibition supported by the likes of Antony Gormley, Banksy, Tracey Emin and Wolfgang Tillmans was put on by fellow Central St Martins students to raise awareness, resulting in the birth of Art Against Knives (AAK). 

Image courtesy of Art Against Knives

They wanted to channel this support into action, addressing the root causes of knife crime by listening to young people and putting them in the lead. They started running creative community projects with young people, involving them in creating solutions to the problems they face, and through this preventing them from becoming victims - or perpetrators - of violent crime.

Community art means interacting, getting a sense of creativity, of place, even leading to career opportunities. Vital to this positivity as opposed to the negativity of drug abuse and knife crime should be local authority funding. It not only gives seeding to endeavours often led by neighbourhood volunteers whose mission is to introduce art and creativity to communities in whose schools it has been written out, it encourages the increasingly community aware local businesses to invest.

Overwhelmingly, basic funding for youth services - which invariably includes introductions to creativity and art - comes from the local or regional council, and in the last decade youth funding has been cut by 70% with 750 youth centres having closed. And many more programmes, like Art Against Knives, do their valuable work without subsidy at all, reliant on philanthropy, local business sponsorship and crowd-funding. 

The aim of AAK, a London charity, is simple: to prevent young people from becoming victims or perpetrators of violent crime through creativity. Its young team embed creative projects devised by young people from within London’s most isolated communities, including a music studio, a training course with the London College of Fashion, classes in nail technology, a collective writing, performing and recording initiative to create an album, photography classes, a combat academy and training programmes for knife crime victims.

"If you actually look at why people carry knives it’s for a multitude of reasons” says AAK founder Katy Dawe. “It's because they are facing all risks, hurdles and incredibly tough life situations, it’s not necessarily out of choice. If we demonise them it harms our wider understanding of the issues.” 

This kind of close involvement needs funding, and the blanket cancelling of arts funding by the councils that have historically been the strongest supporters of culture in the community will critically undermine such vital activity when their scope urgently needs to be widened, not closed. Meanwhile, the knives are still out.

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