Local authorities don’t have to be supine and take their funding woes out on their communities’ cultural content, like Westminster, Walsall, Lancashire and Kirklees have. Here are two positive stories that probably won’t make many news pages just because they’re positive, and being positive about councils is not the zeitgeist.
Southampton was the city that did make the headlines six or seven years ago when it announced it was planning to sell a Rodin sculpture and a Munnings painting in the corporate collection, hoping to raise £5m towards the cost of a new arts centre whose future was looking decidedly iffy. The sale was shelved after a national outcry. Then in November it made the NIBs columns at least with the counter intuitive decision of the new Chancellor to give the scheme £1.6m to cap its funding, and the venue opens later this year. What happened in between?
The Southampton scheme had survived no fewer than seven administrations, and the clincher was the determination of the Arts Council to make it happen, and a partnership with the University of Southampton. Until fairly recently it wasn’t entirely clear which arts would actually be in the centre, but the uni brought the focus by pledging a second Nuffield Theatre and to moving the John Hansard contemporary art gallery, shifting from the campus a mile away into the city centre giving the university a presence for the first time in a century (and getting three times its present gallery space into the bargain). With them is something called City Eye, a media training agency which is 30 years old and is getting its first showing space, and workshops, training courses and learning centres in the mix the whole thing has community writ large.
“We have decided to capitalise, enhance and invest in our cultural offer - recognising it does enrich lives irrespective of background, it does transform communities and it has grown our local economy by bringing millions more visitors and pounds into the city” the council’s culture cabinet member said, and the arrangement seems to owe much to the informal oscillation between ACE, campus and Guildhall trying out all the “what ifs” with the Southampton Cultural Development Trust, created to bring on the city’s cultural quarter, keeping the conversation going. Southampton has put in the lion’s share of the £26m funding.
The localness of it is embodied in its rather enigmatic title, Studio 144. The amorphousness owes something to the early question marks over what would go in the development, but the building originally on the site was a much-loved department store, Tyrrell & Green, whose address was 144 Above Bar Street.
The other one is the theatre that had all the hallmarks of a costly white elephant when it opened eight years ago coming in at £35m over budget. Leicester’s own mayor said of it, "I don't think there's ever been a council-sponsored project that has been so drastically over-budget and so completely out of control".
Yes, it’s Curve, Vinoly’s odd globular see-through theatre, whose last annual report showed a turnover up by 30% on the year before, at over £10m. It’s done it by pandering to its communities – and no city is as diverse as Leicester – and is now risking its future by committing to making its own productions and touring, with audiences up by 57,000 to 250,000, using popular musicals like the current Grease and the work of home-grown talent. So popular is it as a local daytime resort that it has recently had to refurbish its café to give it 60% increase in accommodation. It owes a great deal to some enlightened planning by successive CEOs, but also the unflinching support of Leicester City Council and ACE, both of whom will love Curve’s motto: “Our art is our business”.