Sorry Sir Richard, London’s subsidy bubble may soon be burst

Richard Eyre. Photo: Richard Hubert-Smith
Simon Tait is a former arts correspondent of The Times and is co-editor of Arts Industry magazine.
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The funding cuts have been managed very adroitly by arts organisations so far.

National subsidy has gone down by about 37% since 2011 and local funding by about 10%, but with imagination, working in partnerships, being entrepreneurial and diversifying, and by cutting costs, the damage has been less than might have been feared.

But they are there, they are being felt, and it’s going to get worse. The truth is that the cultural economy is running about three years behind the national economy, so that while we seem to be coming out of recession now in terms of the gross budget, the arts are about to enter the phase the nation was in 2011 as austerity began to bite, and who knows what the cultural landscape will look like by 2018.

Richard Eyre was in euphoric mood at the Olivier awards ceremony at the Royal Opera House, and he’d every right to be. The play he adapted and directed for the ACE-subsidised Almeida, Ibsen’s Ghosts, had just picked up three Oliviers.

“There is something emancipating about doing a show outside the West End where you think you don’t have to hit the jackpot every time. You’re not panicking about whether you can fill the theatre,” he said.

He is living in a bubble, though. Outside of it, Eyre cut his teeth as a director and artistic director at Nottingham Playhouse, which barely a month before had been told that it was to lose all its £100,000 funding from Nottingham County Council.

Even inside the London bubble, the cuts are having their effect. At the National Theatre, where Eyre was boss for ten years, five musicians who had been the onstage accompaniment for the smash-hit War Horse, were fired in March with only the recorded music remaining. Last week, an injunction application on their behalf by the Musicians’ Union, which would have had them reinstated, failed. The NT had argued that the musicians’ £1,500 a week pay amounted to 25% of its annual budget for music.

Two examples close to Eyre’s heart where austerity is striking home, albeit not very visibly.

In its last National Portfolio funding round in 2011, the arts council lost about 200 of its clients as it tried to steer the then 30% cuts it had received from the government away from the front line, and it was able to keep it to an average of 15% in its grants. ACE took a hit in its own administration and then had to cut itself again by half on DCMS orders. This was not, of course, handed on but it has meant a savage reduction in ACE’s operation, so that its trouble-shooting, its finger on the regional pulse, its pastoral care is becoming ghost-like itself.

What ACE was able to do in 2011 was keep the closures down to a minimum, and no big names went to the tumbrils that time. The next round of NPO grants is being calculated now, the announcement will be on July 1, and it will make even less comfortable reading. Already there are rumours of big names being cast out of the National Portfolio for the first time and having to somehow fend for themselves.

Nottingham is not the only local authority contemplating 100% cuts. Councils used to be generous and joyous funders of cultural services, contributing £3.3 billion in 2010/11; by 2012/13 it had slumped by £340m to £2.9 billion.

Which is why the National Campaign for the Arts, with the support of The Stage and others, launched its 50p campaign last week.

It follows a calculation from data from the Department of Communities and Local Government and the Office for National Statistics that shows that on average local authorities are spending just 16p per head on arts, heritage and museums – at least eight are spending nothing at all - when it ought to be at least 50p. In 2010/11 it was 20p, in 2011/12 it was 18p, that’s how fast it’s going down. “Because investment levels are so small – less than half a penny in every pound - cutting them won’t balance the books,” says the NCA's chair, the actor/director Samuel West. “Instead, it will make independent cultural organisations unsustainable and could make the UK cultural desert spread."