With local authority support for arts funding falling off a cliff in recent years, councils and cultural organisations are looking at ways to plug the gap created by the decimation of what has historically been the biggest source of public support for theatres across the country.
A report published this week, the Cultural Cities Enquiry, makes a series of practical recommendations about how cities can be enriched “through smart investment in culture”, as well as highlighting historic examples of success stories such as Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture.
The report’s key idea is for cities to set up what it calls a “cultural city compact”, with the aim of formally bringing together like-minded people and institutions to establish city-wide plans for culture. Linked to this, it also recommends the potential introduction of a tourist tax, which is already being considered in Scotland, that could help fund the work undertaken by these cultural partnerships.
On the face of things, this is not a bad idea. In cities around the UK where culture is flourishing, theatres and arts centres are deeply embedded in the civic identity of the place, often teaming up with each other, as well as universities, local businesses and other key local players. Theatres can no longer operate as islands. The report cites the experience of the UK’s cities of culture as examples that it would like to see rolled out around the UK.
“City of Culture projects show what can be achieved when a city pulls together in support of culture to drive lasting social and economic benefits. We need a model for sustained partnerships along these lines in every city,” the report explains.
This is absolutely the case, but those looking at how to develop these kinds of partnerships and ‘cultural compacts’ would do also well to pay attention to the salutary lesson of Paris.
The French capital’s well-meaning attempts to plug a funding gap by using a city-wide ticket tax to raise extra income has resulted in a major row between the establishment and the grassroots. While I’m sure that organisers from within the partnership would regard the 3.5% levy as a ‘smart investment in culture’, those outside the club regard it as little more than a government-supported cartel, robbing from the have-nots to support the haves.
British cities looking to set up similar schemes must be careful to avoid two-tier systems that only benefit those who already get the largest slice of the cake.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith