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Time for councils to realise true value of the arts

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There’s a worrying undercurrent to the proposed funding cuts in Newcastle, the corrosive idea that the arts are superfluous, so much garnish, something for the few rather than the many. What’s missing is any sense that art is something communal and vital, something that enriches and connects people, and is a necessary part of living, and not just getting by, not just surviving.

It’s this sentiment that the playwright Lee Hall was railing against in his letter to Nick Forbes, the leader of Newcastle City Council about their proposed library closures – “Culture is not an add on, culture is not just for the privileged.”

Erica Whyman, the Artistic Director of Northern Stage, which is also facing the cuts, concurs:

The savings available in cash terms if the arts are cut are genuinely tiny compared with the good we do. These so-called non-essential services are essential to people’s quality of life and we can’t afford to lose them.

In an attempt to save £90 million, the council is planning to cut all funding to arts organisations in the city. According to the BBC, 1300 jobs will be lost as a result, and both Hall and Whyman worry about the impact that the decision will have on the cultural health of the North East, where access to art and education for everyone is something that has been shown to be a potent social force.  According to Whyman:

The council have led the way in understanding the value of culture to a city’s health and well-being and have held onto cultural investment pretty tenaciously in recent years. It would be a very disappointing u-turn if these threatened cuts come to pass and would deeply damage Newcastle’s ability to compete culturally and economically on a world stage.

No-one is suggesting culture should be exempt but we must remember that our theatres, galleries and museums are very significant contributors to the local economy, and to the vibrancy and confidence of a place.

Hall too fears that the library closures particularly are closing a door on a legacy that can never be reopened.

Writing in her Guardian blog, Lyn Gardner voiced fears that other councils may end up following the Newcastle model and that it will end up having a knock-on effect for arts council funding. She envisions a situation in “which Londoners enjoy a plethora of arts activities” in comparison with those living elsewhere in the UK, concluding that while “the councils will have saved money in the short term, we may never be able to measure the enormity of what has been lost.”

These ripples are already being anticipated by other venues, other cities. Birmingham Rep is about to reopen (together with a new library) but Clare Jepson-Homer, press officer there, says that while the Rep’s confident its new studio will open in 2013, beyond that there is a question mark over  funding and if “the level of cuts that are been talked about were to hit us then there is no doubt that there will be no performances in the Studio.”

Hall and Whyman both acknowledge that these are very difficult times but it’s the sweeping nature of the cuts that smarts, the way they seem to discount all the social good that the arts can achieve, and to suggest that art is ultimately expendable.

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