Ralph Lister on what’s next for Somerset’s arts
Somerset has a population of 500,000, a third of whom live in around 300 villages scattered across the county. Now, let’s get one thing straight: despite protestations and spin from Conservative-controlled Somerset County Council, it is a fact that it has cut 100% of its £350,000 arts budget. Yes, it has created a new, £90,000 Creative Industries fund, but as we know this embraces more than just the arts. It is also economic benefit-driven; there are no social benefit criteria. In addition, Mendip District Council has cut all of its arts budget making this district, with a population of 140,000 people, a public funding arts free zone. This is Mendip, home of Glastonbury Festival.
Yes, it is horrible and yes, it is depressing and yes, a number of arts organisations are really struggling. Right now, it’s not possible to say what the Somerset cultural landscape will look like in two or three years time. Appearances can be deceptive and while venues as buildings will continue to exist it is not at all clear what they will be programming or producing.
As for funding from Arts Council England (ACE), only two out of 12 applications from Somerset-focused organisations were successful in their bid to become part of the ACE portfolio. One of those is Take Art, a non-building-based countywide organisation, with a remit to support rural touring, dance, theatre, music and early years. It’s a bittersweet story though. We have shed £60,000 of regular local authority funding, which represents a loss of over a quarter of our core funding. In order to streamline our operations we have had to make some staff redundant and to cut back on what we do.
ACE has made it clear that its funds cannot be used to replace lost local authority funds and this means severe cuts in our rural touring programme. On the one hand, Take Art is cited by Alan Davey, ACE’s Chief Executive, as operating a successful rural touring programme, while on the other we are having to reduce the number of shows this year from 120 to 60. We are exploring new ways of working with areas like Mendip and this is tricky. Exploring Grants for the Arts (GfA) as an option for local volunteer promoters to access funds is likely to hit the buffers if ACE thinks this is a GfA attempt to replace lost local authority funds.
In artform terms there are emerging issues – for example we are finding that dance programming across the county is starting to suffer. Venues are pulling back on the volume and nature of dance that they are promoting and we are unable to offer top-up funding support. This is really serious stuff and we cannot address this on our own. We need to work with willing partners to find creative ways of keeping the arts alive in Somerset and this is as much about working with people outside the county as those inside it.
How can it be right that a county with a population of 500,000 have any less of a cultural right than the rest of the country? Will other counties follow suit? With two further years of local authority cuts, the future is uncertain. The government is now saying that the voluntary sector element of local authority funding should not suffer disproportionately when budgets are cut, so this might offer some protection for arts funding. This, however, is too late for Somerset as this policy is not retrospective.
Take Art will do its bit. Having undergone a fundamental reorganisation and having a clear focus on what we are good at has helped to prepare us for the brave new world. It would be a mistake, however, to end on an empty upbeat note. The next few years are going to be tough.