In an era of cuts, what choices would you make? Three arts professionals make the case for their priorities.

Arts cuts are forcing local and national funding bodies to make difficult choices, but at a recent debate hosted by the UK Centre for Events Management at Leeds Metropolitan University, three speakers made the case for the art they value most. The ‘Ask the Audience’ debate was conceived as a challenge to the arts funding status quo, to consider the question ‘what would the arts be like if the audience was in charge of arts funding?’

Susan Jones, Director of a-n The Artists Information Company
The case for increased funding for solo artists and freelancers.

Whenever you hear someone talking in the press about contemporary arts they generally chat on about the buildings. Access to new lottery funding led to setting up more and more arts buildings, each orchestrated by a charity, staffed by folks with proper job titles and career paths.

We need to invest in the vision and determination of individuals

The presumption is that great art equals great buildings (needing great budgets to match). There’s also the presumption that there will always be artists, actors, musicians, writers and poets around - all happy (and just waiting expectantly) to be the instrument of those arts bureaucrats who think it’s their right to decide what art is and how ‘the public’ will get access to it.

In my mind, whilst seeking to ‘fit’ artists into cultural policies and instruments like this might have worked in the past, it really won’t in the future. We’re in a different world now, one that needs better solutions to complex environments.

I believe artists can mediate their own practice, develop the language and translate / reinterpret others’ needs and aspirations for art into their practice, enabling artists to grow and sustain their ‘micro businesses’ and the audiences for them. Artists put in long-hours, take few holidays and have a huge generosity to the communities and causes they believe in. They are doing what they do for the long-term. Any income they do have goes a very long way. This makes them ideal candidates for small grants from public funding.

It’s a known fact that the most innovative things in the world arise from individuals with good ideas. The small and agile is where innovation emerges – harnessing personal vision and energy. Take Riot Clean Up – that involved some 90,000 people in the aftermath of the 2011 riots. It was fast, gathered traction and support and most of all it created action. And the person behind it was?  An artist – Dan Thompson – who without having a grant or an organisation just got on with galvanising communities any way he could.

It would be easy to say – well that’s just a one off. But I believe we need more recognition and resources for individuals to counteract the slow, ponderousness of institutions whether for the arts or otherwise. We need to invest in the vision and determination of individuals as part of what RSA Director Matthew Taylor calls developing clumsy solutions that “Rather than seeking to resolve or suppress inherent tensions among different ways of seeing and exercising power, acknowledge and work with those tensions.”

Adrian Sinclair, Creative Director of community arts organisation Heads Together Productions
The case for increased funding for community arts.

the arts funding system does a pretty good job of reflecting the real inequalities in our society

“What do you think of the current distribution of arts funding and what would you like to prioritise moving forward? In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it.”
Ernst Fischer

So what if we were living in a society riven with inequalities? Indeed one where we have overseen 40 years of increasing inequality until we have now reached the dizzying heights last seen in this country in the 1920s. A society where there are clear and absolute divisions between people who have wealth and people living in poverty; a country where the differences between the wealth of different regions are ever-increasing; a city which prides itself in its vibrancy and wealth generation yet has whole swathes of communities that have high levels of deprivation, failing education and generations of families struggling to survive.

And so to our arts funding system. What do I think? Well I think it does a fairly good job of reflecting those inequalities. I suppose I would – each year Opera North receives 208 times as much Arts Council funding as Heads Together does. But let’s not make it personal. In recent years public subsidy has supported the creation of vibrant cultural enclaves in our wealthy city centres and promoted the concept of artist as entrepreneur where success equates with personal wealth and celebrity.

As a community arts organisation we are currently building the first-ever dedicated arts venue in East Leeds. Proud – maybe. But think about it: there has never been an arts venue of whatever size in the whole of East Leeds (that’s home to about 158,000 people). Social and cultural deprivation in perfect harmony!

I think the arts funding system does a pretty good job of reflecting the real inequalities in our society; the decay of our society. But I wonder if we have indeed broken faith with its social function. Does it show the world as changeable? And will it help to change it?

Dr Kara McKechnie, Lecturer in Dramaturgy and Literary Management at the University of Leeds
The case for balanced arts funding which includes large ‘flagship’ arts organisations.

When we want to show off our rich cultural canvas for the world to see, funding is not an issue

The arts are essential to our sense of identity, to regeneration, and to the plurality we should be pursuing as a nation, region or city. Along with education and care, the arts should not be for profit and there should be protection from U-turns and sudden funding cuts. The answer is not a redistribution of funding, or a cull of those organisations we don’t think of as worthwhile, but an increase to all arts funding, full stop. It’s the expenditure priorities of those who seemingly represent us that need examining – not the dwindling funds that make us attack each other. As a first step, we should return to pre-2011 funding levels. We should be uniting as an arts community in order to face those who foster this culture of ‘divide and rule’. And yes, these conversations should be hosted by large arts organisations, who would gain a stronger sense of what smaller organisations have to offer, and what they could offer them in return.

For this arts ecology to work there has to be sharing. There is already (skills, expertise, pedagogy, space, resources), but it is based on goodwill and initiative, and it should be mandatory. Large arts organisations need to function as community centres – schemes such as In Harmony, Opera North’s residency at a Hunslet Primary School or in Bridlington, WYP’s Heydays and First Floor initiatives could lead the way.

Large arts organisations are an essential part of the ecology. They cost a lot but they return a lot of value. Not just in the obvious sense, through the work they show, but in terms of enriching the cultural landscape around them. The hundred musicians permanently employed by Opera North, for example, do not just sit in the orchestra pit: they run their own orchestras and concert series, work in schools, teach and interact with the community in many ways. The different skillsets under one roof continually spread out to be applied elsewhere.

To run a full-time repertory or opera company there has to be a financial baseline. Philanthropy is not the only solution – it can strengthen the influence of people who hold the purse strings and over time make their sphere of influence more dominant, reducing opportunities for the organisations to work for everyone.

My sense of ‘thinking big’ comes from growing up and working in Germany. Its theatre landscape is currently being considered as world heritage by the UNESCO. Most towns have full-time, three-tier theatres and there is a model of county, municipal and state funding, according to their size.  Its existence has historical roots, but it still makes me think that it can be possible to maintain an arts landscape like that, as Germany is a country where taxation does not significantly exceed ours. They don’t charge their students for attending university, either, but that’s another debate.

As for the high/ low arts debate, it mostly comes down to a question of taste and preference. As a pedagogue, I am by necessity a pluralist. I cannot subscribe to giving people what they want. We need to show them what they could want. And I certainly cannot subscribe to giving people fewer kinds of art. I want all of them to continue existing in Leeds and in Yorkshire.

When we want to show off our rich cultural canvas for the world to see, funding is not an issue, as The Yorkshire Arts Festival demonstrates. When it’s ‘just’ for our everyday use, expenditure is harder to justify.

Photo of Susan Jones