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Are the arts becoming a luxury we can't afford?
WILL 2013 prove a high watermark for the arts in North-East in the face of ever more severe public funding cuts or is the future for some of our most cherished cultural events and institutions brighter than many predict? STUART ARNOLD reports.
Described as the year that put DURHAM on the map, the past 12 months have seen the city host an exhibition of the Lindisfarne Gospels, the third Lumiere light festival and nearby Chester-le-Street stage the North-East’s first ever Ashes Test match.
The Gospels display attracted 100,000 visitors and was worth an estimated £8.3m to the local economy, Lumiere attracted 175,000 people and was worth at least £5m and the Ashes test attracted 70,000 spectators and was worth about £20m.
But these type of events don’t come cheap. Durham County contributed £400,000 to the Lumiere festival – which cost more than £1m to stage – and controversially handed a near £3m loan to Durham County Cricket Club in order that it could stage the test match. So was such investment worth it particularly in these cash-strapped times? And will Durham residents ever see the likes of such a year again?
“It would be nice to think we could repeat what has happened in 2013 because we have built a real reputation nationally and internationally,” says Durham County Council leader Simon Henig.
“But there is a risk that with ever more funding cuts it becomes more and more difficult to stage these kind of events. It always needs to be justified against spending on other services, some of which are facing an uncertain future.”
The council has not yet announced whether Lumiere will return in 2015 and is still to determine the full economic impact of this year’s event.
“Nothing is sacred and it has to be looked at alongside everything else,” says Coun Henig.
“Some annual events such as the Bishop Auckland Food Festival and the Durham Brass and Book Festival we’ve already said will be running again [in 2014] so there will be plenty of events going on in County Durham next year."
Bishop Auckland Food Festival
Coun Henig says the loan which the cricket club received “wasn’t a giveaway”.
“I think that decision was justified by the great success of the event. England won and it really put us on the map,” he says.
“Studies show that for every pound the council puts in many more pounds come into the local economy and that is surely justification for doing it. There is also a general prestige argument. People may come and visit Durham next year because it has featured in some of these events, which will have beneficial consequences for a long time to come.”
According to Visit County Durham, in 2012 there were 17.8m visitors to the county, who spent £708m. Although this cannot be attributed purely to arts and culture offerings, it’s likely to have contributed a significant chunk. The organisation says it expects these numbers to grow further in 2013.
Some, however, doubt the true economic worth of the sector.
“The figures we see often banded about are a pipedream and hard to quantify,” says County Councillor John Shuttleworth.
“Spending on the likes of Lumiere isn’t sustainable. Roads, care facilities, schools, these should be the priorities. People want the basic services doing well. There is less money to go about and councils should be getting their priorities right.”
And Robert Oxley, campaign director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance campaign group, says with budgets tight local authorities should “focus on providing the services residents pay for so much”.
“Taxpayers’ don’t want their money squandering on grandiose events,” he says.
DARLINGTON council leader Bill Dixon says that while spending on arts and culture is entirely discretionary, it does improve people’s quality of life.
That said the council signalled the death knell for the much loved arts centre in the West End of the town after deciding it was too expensive to run. And even the historic Darlington Civic Theatre’s future looked decidedly dodgy when the council put it up for sale to protect it from financial cuts. A £1 levy on tickets was later agreed in a bid to secure its future. Darlington’s Head of Steam railway museum could also close after the council said it would no longer fund it after 2016.
Darlington Arts Centre
“Regrettably we had to shut the Arts Centre, but we remain committed to keeping open as much as we can even though it’s difficult,” says Coun Dixon.
“It can’t be a race to the bottom, we have got a rich and varied culture in this region and we need to find ways of protecting it.”
Coun Dixon said the council chose to support newly inaugurated Festival of Thrift, which recently attracted visitors from all over the country.
“Every penny those visitors spend is new money to the town. We have agreed therefore that from scarce resources we will fund the Festival because it will grow and enhance the reputation of the borough, and people enjoy it,” he says.
On TEESSIDE, the Stockton International Riverside festival continues to go from strength to strength and the ARC venue at Stockton has become something of a cultural mainstay with its mix of music, dance, theatre, film and comedy shows.
The once free Middlesbrough Music Live festival fell by the wayside a few years ago because of council cuts, but the Stockton Weekender has ably taken over that mantle, albeit on a paid basis.
Meanwhile, the running of the contemporary art gallery mima, in Middlesbrough, is set to pass from Middlesbrough Council to Teesside University, saving the authority about £350,000. It’s just another example of how squeezed finances are changing the cultural landscape. The gallery – which has been subsidised by taxpayers to the tune of £1m of year – has hosted some prestigious exhibitions but there have been question marks about visitor levels with one local campaign group claiming last year more people were using its free toilets than admiring its artworks.
Up on TYNESIDE Philip Bernays, the chief executive of Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, admits the arts sector is in a “serious position”, even if his own theatre is celebrating a record year in respect of audience numbers.
It will lose its funding from Newcastle City Council within the next 18 months, which amounted to £600,000 in 2012/13.
“Clearly there is going to be less money available to support cultural activity which means there will be less of it or prices will have to go up,” says Mr Bernays.
“Nothing is easy at the moment, but I would say the public in the North-East continues to support and wants to engage with culture in the broadest sense of the word.”
As well as the local authority picture, further budget cuts for the Department of Culture Media and Sport will in turn lead to a further tightening of the purse strings at the Arts Council. It supports the likes of Beamish and the Bowes Museum, in Barnard Castle.
The Arts Council’s grant in aid will be cut by 1.17 per cent in 2014/15 and 1.13 per cent in 2015/16, which is on top on a previous five per cent cut announced by the Chancellor George Osborne.
“Unfortunately we are going to have to pass these cuts onto the organisations that we fund,” says Jane Tarr, a director of the Arts Council based in the North-East.
“It is very challenging for the sector we do recognise that. But in terms of the North-East there are more than 20,000 people employed in culture and creative industries and that’s a lot of people’s jobs. There is less money about, but we have to keep making the case and we are actively thinking of new ways to get money into arts organisations.”
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