Friday, 1 April 2011

Why cuts to the arts budget is an advantage

While many in the arts a bemoaning the cuts to the grants received from the arts council, at least one Yorkshireman sees the flipside of the situation. Far from being a problem, it is an opportunity. Now opportunities aren’t handed out on a plate, but his belief is that the cuts give the arts a chance to show its creativity and create new business models.

What can’t be allowed to happen is the loss of arts in the region or nationally.
This was message from John Godber at the First Friday event in Wakefield. His appearance at the Cedar Court Hotel was one of his first for his new theatre company now based at the Wakefield Theatre Royal.

Along with the theatre’s director Murray Edwards, there was optimism for the future, not just for the headline grabbing plays created by Godber, but also for the youth and community projects which use the facilities on an almost daily basis.

Restrictions tend to follow grants and it is these restrictions which are now removed from the business model. The challenge is to persuade private money that there is an advantage to getting involved in the arts. To paraphrase, how can you be creative if you don’t have inspiration.

The loss of Government funding is a loss to the arts community and this presents a challenge. But it is not the only challenge for John Godber. He’s left a theatre and company he’s built up for well over twenty years to start from scratch. The new company needs to establish a reputation but it does create a freedom to start afresh.
There is a commercial realty to the challenge.

It might be easier to obtain sponsorship for a new play written by one of the greatest living British playwright than for an educational group dealing with unemployed teenagers, but both are valuable. The argument might be that the workshops offering skills, confidence and life skills to NEATS, an endemic problem in the Wakefield district, is far more valuable to the business community than exposure to a theatre audience.

Equally, the acting community tends to have more than one vocation. Training, community projects and other endeavours tend to provide the basis for a jobbing actor to also do what they love – appearing on stage or screen. While the big names might get a living wage, that can’t always be said for the stock characters and ensemble roles. It’s a far more complicated interdependency between the headline performances and the community workshops which may not even result in a performance.

Convincing businesses that there is real opportunity in the arts isn’t easy. Bizarrely the focus on the funding cuts does help in showing what could be lost to a community. John Godber said losing arts provision is like losing a playing field and isn’t felt straight away. Like Arthritis, it erodes over time from a mild annoyance to a severe problem. Losing community projects weakens the community and loses skills. Highlighting the good work at risk means companies are better placed to find synergies and understand that supporting a project for the homeless,NEATS, the elderly or the disabled could bring greater benefits in terms of local reputation, audience and reciprocal benefit.

Having commercial packages and sponsorship in some ways is a cop out. It is an easy way of getting in front of known an audience. Funding a project that gives hope to young people who feel failed by the education system identifies potential new employees, recognition from the community and creating economic activity in the local economy.

The new venture in Wakefield comes at a strange time with the Arts Council announcement, but another plus must be the key artistic developments in the region. Three years ago you might not class Wakefield as an artistic hub, but with the creation of the Art House studios, the creation of the Hepworth Gallery and the success of the art walks there has been a real boon for the district. The Leeds Fringe and the other developments in Leeds means there is a real opportunity for Yorkshire to be a cultural centre envied by other regions.

There are also valuable lessons in life and business. Where one door closes, another door opens. Turning round bad news into good is difficult but can only be achieved through creativity. And as I’ve mentioned before, where would we be without the inspiration of the arts.

Image: scottchan /

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