Monday, 15 June 2009

What would you cut?

Today the National Campaign for the Arts launched their Manifesto for the Arts. At the conference, The London Mayor's head of Culture Munira Mirza posed the ‘what would you cut?’ question. We used to ask the same question at ippr, during the height of the 'no return to boom and bust' boom. Now, the question is even more relevant and unavoidable.

It is easy and tempting to look beyond the arts for cuts – Trident, ID cards, even the sacred, sometimes opulent spaces of health and education. Having visited lots of schools in the past few years, resourcing levels can occasionally feel extravagant.

However, sticking with the arts, Munira pointed to the ‘bureaucracy that is supposed to support you’. She made similar points in her Culture Vultures publication. There is without doubt a messy clutter out there of organisations and agencies that are supposed to support artists, or support artists to support others.. Radical action, especially if resources are reallocated to the creation of art, could be timely and popular.

But bureaucracies are easy prey, and cutting them rarely saves you as much money as you think it will.

Here is one other option, backed by zero data, and unlikely to be popular. Given that audience numbers are unlikely to rise much more in tight economic times, is it now time to face the possibility that we have an oversupply of cultural venues, in particular performance spaces? Last week, I heard about a £1.5 Million theatre, built at the start of the decade with mainly Arts Council money, that was now dormant, maybe used for two weeks of the year. This could be a London problem, or even an inner London issue. Meanwhile, the Building Schools for the Future programme is only just peaking; hundreds of schools will open or reopen every year for the next decade, many with modern performing and visual arts facilities – BSF has been described as England’s largest ever cultural building programme. If used as they ought to be, for wider public rather than school-only use, these schools will create even more capacity, but contribute to oversupply.

Also, the trend for producing theatre at mobile venues, or reclaiming space to produce temporary theatre, continues, and the recession has made many more spaces available for ‘pop-up’ performances and galleries.

So, what would I cut? If we do have an oversupply of permanent 'static' venues, in certain areas, now may be to cut some of them loose and cut our losses.

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