Industry leaders including National Theatre bosses Rufus Norris and Lisa Burger and Bristol Old Vic’s artistic director Tom Morris are calling on the sector to band together to fight for increased arts investment from a new government.
They have issued the call to arms in an attempt to undo the effects of austerity-era cuts.
Their demands for increased arts funding from central government come alongside warnings that the regional theatre sector could “fall over” if support does not increase, and that the crisis facing organisations nationwide is “sharper and more acute” than has so far been publicly acknowledged.
As the UK prepares to head to the polls and with both Labour and the Conservatives promising a boost to public spending, theatre bosses have claimed now is the moment for a major policy shift around arts funding.
Morris said: “It is fantastic that militant austerity is now under review, and it is fantastic that there is more investment being talked about in health, social care, education and policing. But let’s not at the same time miss the opportunity of assessing what the impact of investment could be in the creative sector, the only sector of the economy that has grown year on year over the past 10 years.”
He continued: “Can we, in this weird political maelstrom that we’re living in, make sure that we [the sector] don’t miss the opportunity to make that argument?”. He added that this must be achieved “by teamwork”.
Newly published manifestos released ahead of next month’s vote feature pledges to the arts, including a package of business-rate relief for venues and an “arts premium” to secondary schools in the case of the Conservatives, and £1 billion of infrastructure investment as set out in Labour’s ‘charter for the arts’.
Morris said these signs were encouraging, but added: “What will be fascinating will be how much they develop that, and how loud they are prepared to shout about it.”
In a joint statement, NT leaders Norris and Burger argued that government should be spending on the sector, describing it as an opportunity for the country’s future leadership to “rebuild national confidence by investing in the UK’s inherent and historical strength in creativity”.
However, they warned that theatre’s world-leading status “is acutely threatened by the chronic under-investment of the last decade and the loss of creative education in schools”.
“Many theatres have suffered the double whammy of cuts to central government and local authority funding; financially, that’s left them running on empty.
“That has drastically limited their ability to invest in new productions, holding back talent development and innovation, the lifeblood of the sector. It has also reduced the breadth of work available to grow and inspire audiences. There is an urgent need for increased investment, delivered through a joined-up approach between central and local government, to avoid irrevocable damage to theatre and creativity throughout the UK,” they said.
Lorne Campbell, outgoing artistic director of Northern Stage in Newcastle, said the financial hardships that austerity had brought to regional theatres in recent years meant more funding was not only a desire but a necessity.
“Relatively small investment in a global sense would have huge impact, but there’s also an argument that if it doesn’t come soon you’re going to start to see organisations fall over, and you’re going to see more fundamental problems with business models.
“The crisis [affecting] producing theatre in the regions is much sharper and more acute than I think is being publicly expressed,” he said.
Cuts to local government budgets have resulted in widespread arts funding reductions, meaning regional theatres are finding it increasingly hard to produce work, Campbell said, while standstill funding and inflation have also contributed to the “ratcheting pressure”.
Campbell, who has run Northern Stage for six years and next year will take over the reins at National Theatre Wales, said despite this, the sector was now “extremely well set up to extract every penny’s value” out of public funding.
“The system is ready to make sure that investment is used in an incredibly efficient and impactful way.
“As we’ve become better business people, that should empower us to make the argument to government. We need to be really clear that this is not a net cost to the public purse, this is industrial investment that more than returns itself,” he added.
Director Paul Jepson, who ran Exeter’s Northcott Theatre for four years until 2018, said it was “really important” that theatre did not approach a new government as if “[investment] is never going to happen”.
He added: “The challenge now for arts organisations is to make a case for how that reinvestment might happen and how it might be generated. More of that conversation within the sector would be a good idea.”