In the Big Society, not all art is equal 14 July 2011

Published in The Guardian

The arts have always been required to justify their access to government funding by performing a civic duty. Even while New Labour presided over a golden era in arts funding, its streams of cash flowed only in response to the party mandate that the arts should be “central to the task of recreating the sense of community, identity and civic pride that should define our country”.

In the age of austerity these sentiments have been recycled in accordance with the political rhetoric of the day. Arts Council England’s website waxes lyrical that “arts leaders and organisations occupy a major place in the Big Society”. Meanwhile the RSA’s pamphlet Arts Funding, Austerity and the Big Society suggests the arts should do more to renew instrumentalism, quantify social impact and provide better statistical justification for its access to the public purse.

Maybe this is a fair deal in times of economic crisis and certainly ACE appeared to consider artistic excellence a key litmus test while allocating its national portfolio. The new NPO status awarded to InBetweenTime and Fierce, two of Britain’s most exciting multi-art form festivals should serve as testimony to this. Yet surely government expectation that the arts can perform an enhanced civic duty while absorbing a 29.6% cut in funds amounts to a demand for greater quantitative return for significantly less investment? As match-funding schemes are announced to kick-start a new era of philanthropy, what criteria will be used to judge each art form worthy of financial investment?

The transition that is creeping through Britain’s best multi-art form venues is a telling example of how cuts to the arts are beginning to bite. In the new national portfolio venues such as Arnolfini and the Bluecoat (where I was recently acting performance programmer) have taken the equivalent of an 11% cut. The ICA took a hit of 42%, a decision that reports suggest was prompted by a spell of bad management. All three of these venues’ mission statements include programming an eclectic mix of talks, performances, literature and visual art. Now cuts need to be made and these diverse art forms are losing out to visual arts, based – it seems to me – on the instrumentalist perspective that galleries yield greater footfall and are more attractive to wealthy donors.

The Bluecoat in Liverpool, a combined arts centre with a heritage of hosting performance and literature artists, from Yoko Ono to Jeanette Winterson has recently made my former post of live programmer and the position of literature programmer redundant and placed programming on hold, while it reviews options for the future. Meanwhile the ICA has a number of staff that programme its multi-art form events under consultation for redundancy, while staff who curate visual art appear to be protected. A review of their combined arts offer is underway. In a telling precursor the Arnolfini have not employed a senior live producer since 2009, after they decided also to review their live activity.

Galleries that are open seven days a week can easily be pitched as civic and social spaces that offer free access. While these are positive assets, they are not the only criteria on which the comparative merits of the art form should be judged. Literature readings, talks and live performance can create uniquely life-enhancing engagement opportunities for the public even though they have limited capacities, happen at specific times and require the purchase of a ticket. Do we live in an era where the demand for accessible culture has become so pervasive, that these modest requirements are now insurmountable obstacles?

During a visit to the ICA last weekend, I took a peep at the ominous “Bronsteinification” of the theatre space that had set tongues wagging about the future of its live programme. On their website the ICA say that Pablo Bronstein’s Sketches for Regency Living is a “groundbreaking exhibition” that facilitates the artist “choreographing extraordinary art and ballet performances”. As an exercise in multi-art form programming it is scintillating, offering one artist the opportunity to exercise their oeuvre across a range of platforms. Yet as a practical exercise this exhibition appears to have facilitated the conversion of the ICA’s theatre into a space for visual arts.

In times of crisis it is vital that multi-art form programming remains agile and responsive to the need for change. Each art form must prove its worth, but analysis of value should be based on qualitative concerns rather than the need to generate footfall. Without arts centres to make a financial investment in a broad range of cross art form activity, the quality and diversity of our cultural output is at risk.

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