Postcards from the West

Samuel West (centre), picture here in Enron,  is chair of the National Campaign for the Arts. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Samuel West (centre), picture here in Enron, is chair of the National Campaign for the Arts. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Simon Tait is a former arts correspondent of The Times and is co-editor of Arts Industry magazine.
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This column has highlighted a couple of enlightened partnerships between regional theatres and local authorities lately, but there are many more councils that are not so convinced of the importance of drama in their communities.

As we move with a judder into the autumn, local authorities are facing the latest budgeting exercise, and the postcard campaign initiated by The Stage, Equity and the TMA starts to bring some heft to bear – at least, it will if Sam West has anything to do with it.

The actor/director, who is also chairman of the National Campaign for the Arts (and some might say its only effective element these days) is criss-crossing the shires, counties and ridings to follow up on the public’s postal bombardment. He and others are stepping front of curtains before “openers” to urge audiences to think of what they might be losing.

Because councils are facing new cuts of 10% to 15% from the government grant and West is calling on audiences to make their feelings known in the nicest possible way, with billet doux to their councillors asking them to examine priorities.

Is the way of dealing with the cuts to appoint a director of communications at £125,000 to boss a £90,000 and a media chief on £82,000?

That’s what Westminster has done, while just as the borough scraps its entire arts budget, worth 0.04% of its whole budget. That’s the sort of priority correspondents are thinking of.

The campaign, which you should all know by now is called My Theatre Matters!, doesn’t ask for the arts to be exempt, just for any cuts to be proportionate. He for one doesn’t believe in what he calls ideological cuts, so that if the reduction to local authorities is 10% the cut to the arts should be 10% - and not 100% or even, as the Newcastle total cancelling of the cultural spend was renegotiated to, 50%.

[pullquote]The postcard campaign is subtly changing normally passive playgoers into champions[/pullquote]

The argument that the arts are elitist, which comes from more than a few town halls, is arrant nonsense. More people go to the theatre than go to football matches, and it’s cheaper.

The postcard campaign is subtly changing normally passive playgoers into champions, and the response experienced by West so far suggests that councils will have to weigh their postcard influx rather than count it.

Local arts oraganisations are, of course, in for a triple whammy, with arts council funding cut and sponsorship never harder to come by than it is today, as well as local authorities turning effortlessly to what has always been seen as a soft touch. Whether local government knows it or not, regional theatre is a huge earner for the local and national economy, both in itself and as a multiplier, encouraging theatergoers to eat, drink and use hotels in town and city centres.

But more, the arts are who we are and the theatre is our mirror, which the councillors will be told if, after they’ve weighed them, they read the postcards piling up on their municipal doorsteps.