TAITMAIL Arts centres: investing in the bottom line

There was a poignant throwaway line on Front Row’s edition devoted to Rethink last week when the panel was lamenting any meaningful suggestions from the government about how to avoid the black hole our cultural infrastructure is heading headlong for. “In the absence of large art” said the equality campaigner Amanda Parker “people found local”.

In other words, with no open theatres, concert halls, galleries, museums or, if I dare say it in the context of art, schools, we found ourselves needing creativity, ours or anybody else’s. Culture, it turns out, is our social resin, and so we turned to our own communities for it. 

And right there waiting for us were the arts centres, unnoticed by those conducting the large art rows over funding national institutions (so far completely unavailing as theatres fall into receivership). Arts centres are a feature of the country where the big organisations have no penetration: our small towns and villages, our rural areas. 

There are probably 1,000 or so and they fill in some of the gaps in the curriculum according to local needs, are regulars in our care homes and hospices, keep hospital wards entertained and our children creative, our village halls alive. They bring live performance, film screenings, creative learning activities, festivals, exhibitions and community-led events, engaging people from across the demography - research shows that at least 20% of regulars come from the least engaged sections.

Arts centres locked down like everyone else but continue to engage offering programmes for their communities, and those that they can’t reach digitally online they get to by phone, post and local radio, keeping those vital social connections linked with creative activity. But they’re suffering, lost ticket sales, room hire fees and secondary spend meaning cuts to income of up to 80%, and staff have been furloughed in the scheme that’s about to end when many may well be made redundant. Once they’re reopened (those that can), they reckon it will take two years to get back to where they were four months ago. 

Many of them are already in trouble, but fairly paltry sums can get them out of it. Stratford Circus in East London, and in one of the poorest boroughs in the country, is one that earlier in the lockdown said it couldn’t hold out and launched a local appeal; this week it announced it had raised the £6,000 it needs from its communities. The picture here is of Stratford Circus’s summer workshop last year.

What the Covid-19 interlude has done is to magnify the importance in hard times of engaging with the arts, and the extreme peril they are in – forget the hundreds of billions they bring to the economy for now, this is more important than that. 

On Wednesday the Arts Council recognised the urgency in reviving community arts by reopening its National Lottery Project Grants programme, aimed at just those grass roots, which had been closed along with other funds to make up the £160m rescue plan https://www.artsindustry.co.uk/news/2110-lottery-is-back. This is the one it chose to reactivate first, and suddenly there is £60m up for bids until next April. “Thanks to National Lottery players we’ve been able to support our nation’s creativity over the past few months through our Emergency Response Funds” said Darren Henley, ACE’s CEO. “Now, we’re turning our attention to rebuilding cultural and artistic life in our villages, towns and cities”.

Arts centres can and should be at the start of the recovery, they are the bottom line. Many of their staff have special expertise in working with the young, the old, the disabled, the homeless, the mentally ill, asylum seekers and refugees. The centres are flexible and adaptable to changing situations, but they will need investment to do it properly. Not much, but some.

So Future Arts Centres (FAC), which represents about 100 arts centres across the UK, has written to the Chancellor with a concrete but inexpensive and simple set of proposals:

  • The Theatre Tax Relief Scheme (TTR) is a tax break introduced in 2014 to help theatre production companies develop live performance, and it can mean a saving of 20-25%, but most arts centres don’t qualify. Expand its definitions to allow arts centres and community venues to invest in new programming.
  • Establish a centralised fund for creative industries apprenticeships in local arts venues.
  • Create a National Arts Project stimulus package that will allow community arts centres to employ freelance artists to work in schools, care homes etc.

Getting TTR will dramatically reduce centres’ financial risk and allow them to reopen in weeks, with adjustable spaces that can be used for a huge range of different cultural activity. “We are ideally positioned to hit the ground running and give opportunities for artists and creators to get to work and create social, cultural and economic stimulus for our communities” says the FAC’s co-chair Annabel Turpin, who also runs ARC in Stockton-on-Tees. They have apprenticeship programmes ready to fire, and a digital Rolodex of local artists waiting in unfurloughed lockdown for the call.  

“Putting culture at the heart of local recovery makes sense, socially and financially” says Gavin Barlow, who runs The Albany in Deptford as well as being the other FAC co-chair. “Our arts centres and cultural venues are uniquely placed to respond to the needs of their communities. We’re urging the chancellor to use existing networks and mechanisms to help kickstart our local communities.”

It doesn’t take John Maynard Keynes to see that here is an economic plan aimed at Rishi Sunak’s financial statement next week. He seems to be still in deadlock with DCMS over a theatre rescue plan and extending the furlough scheme – Treasury says it won’t make exceptions – but no-one who has had any experience of the depth and range of what arts centres do at local level would demur at including an upgrade in national recognition for them, by implementing such a scheme. 

If you need to get your priorities right, Chancellor, you might as well start at the bottom line.


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