Maria Miller, The Lowry and the big regional arts funding debate

The Lowry in Salford, a venue that campaigners say is not suitable for the small-scale touring circuit
Simon Tait is a former arts correspondent of The Times and is co-editor of Arts Industry magazine.
by -

Maria Miller has defended her funding strategy once again, telling us that being able to make a good economic case has got a better deal out of the Treasury. It is not, of course, a funding strategy at all, but a cuts strategy in which the government has been skewing the arts funding system to relieve the government of around 35% of the cost it was bearing before 2010.

We’ve always known that making a good business case was the only evidence a Chancellor wants to hear, and in 2000 Chris Smith, the then culture secretary, was confiding bluntly to friends in the arts that “it isn’t music that makes Gordon sing and dance, its money”.

Miller is right, of course, say that a strong cultural sector benefits us all socially and economically, and when the present government came to power the sector had never been stronger. It was considerably weakened, of course, by the 2011 cuts, but if she hadn’t been able to make that economic argument, she said at the British Library on Wednesday, the deal would have been far worse than it actually was.

What has happened with the skewing is that different money is being brought into play. The arts council is currently devising a funding portfolio which for the first time will use National Lottery money for revenue funding, anathema to the Conservative government that brought in the lottery 20 years ago. Because ACE has be been allowed by the government to do this, National Portfolio Organisations will face a mere 2% cut on top of what they have already had, instead of something more like 17%. So that’s a simple moral shift to relieve the government commitment, nothing to do with making any kind of case.

All this has rather been overshadowed by the debate on regional-versus-London arts funding, however. The Commons culture select committee is going to look into it after a report, Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital, claimed that ACE was committing five times as much money to the capital as it was to the regions, and sponsorship/philanthropy has even more of a metropolitan bias.

But this too is changing. While the flagship companies that ACE and the government fund based mostly in London, they are being encouraged to make partnerships with leading regional cultural organisations to benefit both the reach of the best the RSC, for instance, can offer but also bring great work from outside London in.

And the regional operations are working hard and effectively at this, too. The Lowry is a case in point, where the attempt to present itself as an international venue had failed and was replaced by new focussing on its own locale to build an audience and loyalty, and grow from there. It worked and the Lowry, the first business to take a gamble on the run-down post-industrial Salford Quays area on the Manchester Ship Canal, became a draw for others, businesses and employment rising dramatically and a 30% residential growth. In 2011, the BBC moved next door to create MediaCity UK.

The Lowry has just had its own survey done which, says its chief executive Julia Fawcett, “identified The Lowry as a beacon for the regenerative power of the arts, but it also highlighted how the organisation’s financial model enabled its funding to have the maximum possible impact”. Miller will be delighted to know that only 11% of The Lowry’s income now is from public funding, and it draws 820,000 visitors a year.

But what Fawcett has also done is to forge partnerships with national companies, which she believes will bring more cultural investment to Greater Manchester. An association with the National Theatre had brought National productions to Salford Quays which have sold 250,000 tickets, but just as importantly has introduced participation projects that have mingled National and regional talent.

It works, and too much concentration on redistribution rather than the more subtle approach could damage the process whereby apparently London-bound money can be used to nurture regional talent with national participation. More discussions can and will take place, and the subject needs to be given a wider forum so that experience can be shared. Whatever the government’s strategy, the arts have to look beyond subsidy to secure their futures and their artistic development.