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Beri Juraic: Rethink local funding, or the UK will become a cultural desert

Secombe Theatre. Photo: Sutton Theatres
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Most UK local councils cater for the various needs of local community performing arts groups, from amateur theatre companies to disability groups and local dance schools. The London Borough of Sutton, for example, has an unusually high number of such groups, which had been using the local Secombe and Charles Cryer theatres.

But unless local councils finance the cost of running such venues, they often find it hard to survive. Sutton is no exception. Its theatres have struggled over the last decade – both under the council’s management, which ran them as hire-only venues, and when the venues were put to tender and subsequently run by a non-profit organisation set up by myself and my colleagues. The company running the theatres went into administration in August and the theatres are currently dark.

Certainly in our case, outsourcing turned out not to be the best way to deal with the problem of financing local venues. There were huge employee liabilities under TUPE employment regulations and poorly maintained buildings (for example, the roof of one of the toilets at the Cryer collapsed three days after we took over, forcing us to postpone our opening season). All this was too much for a small non-profit organisation.

Such transitions cannot be made quickly without support from the local authority, especially as council-run venues, financed by taxpayers, often do a poor job on the audience development front. In Sutton’s case, 12 years of neglect took its toll and the venues were seen as amateur companies’ playgrounds.

To change this, we introduced a wide-ranging professional programme – from comedy and pantomime to challenging dance and theatre shows, both UK and international – which doubled the audiences from a mere 12% to 24% of capacity. We spent tens of thousands of pounds on advertising, while keeping the space available for those community groups. This was not enough, though. It would have taken a few more years to create audiences high enough for the venues to be self-sufficient.

Being on the outskirts of London doesn’t help either. As recently reported by The Stage, Sutton is the second worst performer in the capital when it comes to arts funding.

The Cryer. Photo: Sutton Theatres
The Cryer. Photo: Sutton Theatres

It is probably not fair to expect local councils in these times of austerity to keep financing their local venues. This may explain what happened to promises of support to both us and the local community groups in the form of grants – in Sutton, the £150,000 local arts budget was secretly scrapped.

Some local amateur groups also took the council’s support for granted and refused to accept changes in the way the venues were run. They refused to pay VAT, upfront hire fees and a small 10% increase in hire rates that didn’t even cover the running costs. None of these groups helped revitalise and redecorate the venues they swore to cherish – or even attended shows not staged by themselves or their friends. This attitude prompted the question: why should a private company subsidise someone’s hobby without receiving any subsidy?

I am a firm believer in the impact on young people of participating in drama. Before becoming a professional theatremaker, I was a member of several youth theatre groups. They help build confidence, spark creativity and develop team spirit. However, there is a reason why funding bodies such as the Arts Council tend not to fund community groups: it is something people do in their spare time, a hobby. As such, it should (as in my case) be funded by the participants themselves. Nonetheless, we continued to subsidise local community groups to our detriment.

In general, local councils are not well equipped to run cultural and theatre venues anyway: they lack experience, creativity, planning and vision. Without having an arts strategy, Sutton Council went through the process of outsourcing its theatres, but a few months later a new town centre plan was created that proposed to demolish the Secombe theatre building. There was a vague proposal of a new multidisciplinary venue and instead of talking to the operator of its theatres, Sutton Council decided to commission a local arts network to make a proposal for a new theatre venue. Why would any private or public investor decide to continue funding a venue enjoyed by the wider community if in a few years’ time its investment would be wasted?

Indeed, to increase income, we had plans to expand the venues’ capacity to attract bigger shows. That being said, it is an industry myth that comedy and commercial programmes are venues’ cash cows – or at least their bread and butter. In fact, most venues like Sutton theatres actually rely on public money to cover the costs of such events. On a typical sold-out comedy night at the 396-seat Secombe, comedy agents would take their usual 80/20 box office split in their favour – leaving the venue with only a few hundred pounds’ profit, with bar sales profits included. That’s how much it costs to run such events at a venue outside central London.

Even if this were enough to make the venues financially self-sufficient, it would not be possible to programme a comedian every night of the week. Some would argue that this is what the subsidy is for – to help with running costs. But isn’t that just filling private pockets with taxpayers’ money? Should it be used to fund commercial promoters? I still had to programme under such terms, as if there were any argument the promoters would go to a neighbouring subsidised venue instead – we needed them, even for the meagre profits, more than they needed us.

By now, I should have been finalising Sutton Theatres’ 2017/2018 European theatre programme, which was part of our winning bid. Unfortunately, the EU referendum happened in June, making the collaborations I have been setting up over the last two years impossible to realise due to uncertainty over EU culture funding: not only from Creative Europe, but also from smaller private EU funds supporting smaller initiatives. Some partners were reserved about our collaboration having a negative impact on the assessing of joint bids EU-wide. My long-term goal of making Sutton south London’s international culture hub therefore could not be realised. This problem is faced by all venues and companies relying on EU funds to ease the local and national government cuts – and one of the first legacies of the Brexit vote.

In 2014, Sutton was characterised by the UK government as the most normal and average place in Britain. The demise of the theatres in Sutton should therefore be a lesson for us all. If we do not invest in our local audiences first and foremost, Britain might become a cultural wasteland. A serious rethink from all involved is needed on how to fund venues at a local level to enable them to develop audiences long term and to counteract the current bleak prospective, after the EU referendum result and years of austerity measures.

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