Winning arts and minds

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Alistair Smith
Alistair Smith is editor, print of The Stage.
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There's been much talk of arts funding cuts over the last few weeks.

Some have already happened (as in the Arts Council England cuts), some are planned (as in Newcastle City Council's proposed 100% cut to arts funding), and some are feared (as in the sundry local authorities who are likely to follow Newcastle's lead).

It's rather like the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future. And, in this Christmas Carol scenario, the government has been cast as Scrooge, with the arts world doing its best to convince Ebenezer to mend his selfish and parsimonious ways.

There is certainly an argument to made here - UK theatre is undoubtedly one of the success stories of the last 15 years and it would be sheer folly to throw it away. But how best to make the case?

Earlier this month, Danny Boyle and Nicholas Hytner held a joint press conference at the National to warn of the dangers facing regional theatres, while Hytner was again re-iterating his rallying cry last weekend at the London Evening Standard Theatre awards, as he warned that we risked a repeat of the dark days (and dark theatres) of the Thatcher era.

Over at The Guardian, in a typically thoughtful post, Michael Billington congratulates Hytner on taking the opportunity to highlight the problems facing his colleagues outside London.

Billington says:

The main virtue of these award ceremonies is that they give leading theatrical lights a chance to stick it to the government. To his great credit, Nicholas Hytner used the Standard ceremony to point out that the National Theatre not only enjoys a secure subsidy denied to most others, but that it has been at the heart of local economic regeneration on London's South Bank. It was "completely nuts" that theatres were being told to expect less funding, he remarked. "It makes no economic sense whatsoever." Danny Boyle, accepting a Beyond Theatre award for the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, made a similar point about the indivisibility of British theatre and the vital connection between London and the regions.

On one level, I agree with Billington. It is great - and entirely commendable - that Hytner and Boyle want to use their prominence to fight the corner of regional theatres. But, it strikes me that glamourous awards ceremonies are precisely the wrong kind of place to do it.

[pullquote]At a time when most of the public sector is facing swingeing cut-backs, I'm not sure it plays well to complain of the difficulties facing our own sector, while dressed in black tie and surrounded by Versace-clad models swilling champagne[/pullquote]

The problem is one of public perception. At a time when most of the public sector is facing swingeing cut-backs, I'm not sure it plays well to complain of the difficulties facing our own sector, while dressed in black tie and surrounded by Versace-clad models swilling champagne.

Working in the arts, we know that the image portrayed by events such as these is not a genuine reflection of the everyday experience of a theatre professional, but I'm not sure the general public do.

If the arts world wants to win the argument over public funding, it is going to need to think much harder about the kind of image it projects to the general public - and, by extension, to government.

Otherwise, nobody is going to be getting any turkey.

2 Comments

  1. The life of an out of work actor in the north east couldn’t be more different than the images from the awards ceremony. Not only are actors unable to get acting jobs they are also unable to get work stacking shelves in supermarkets, waiting at tables, doing night shift at call centres, cleaning toilets, etc. There is simply no work for anyone – jobs are being shed everywhere. Bleak isn’t the word – we need some new terminology for what is being meted out to the people who reside in the far away regions. What is happening across all sectors is punishment for our historical association with radical socialism. Effectively we are punished for being poor!

  2. I think you’re right about public perception, but I don’t think the problem is black tie events and parties (in fact I think a few more parties would do us the power of good!).

    Arts organisations need to look very deeply at what they do, to unravel public indifference, if we are to avoid going around and around this argument for ever.

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