Cash-starved North-East arts groups spend time “doing grant applications” rather than putting on cultural projects

The Northern Echo: The Baltic The Baltic

CASH-starved North-East arts groups spend their time “doing grant applications” rather than putting on cultural projects, MPs were warned today (Tuesday).

Leaders of the North-East Culture Partnership delivered a gloomy verdict on the future of the arts in the region, in evidence to a parliamentary inquiry.

They told MPs that many organisations were “very close to the edge”, after years of funding cuts that had forced them to slash staff, hours and activities.

Philanthropic giving had dried up and it was increasingly difficult to find the long-term funding that allowed key projects to go ahead.

Meanwhile, decision makers – who, in the past, had pioneered the Angel of the North and the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art – were now based in distant London.

John Mowbray, a co-chairman of the Partnership and a former president of North East Chamber of Commerce, said organisations had lost the freedom to be “innovative and creative”.

He said: “There are some smaller schemes, but when it comes to different ideas beyond that they are really, really struggling.

“Organisations have a reduced capacity and are spending a lot of time doing grant applications, to be honest, instead of focusing on why we want them there in the first place.”

Mr Mowbray also sharply criticised an imbalance in National Lottery funding of projects, which saw so much of the cash from ticket sales spent in London.

He added: “We need to balance the needs of the capital, but there are regions that are making large contributions that are not coming back to certain areas.”

Mr Mowbray, and Councillor David Budd, member for culture at Middlesbrough Council, were giving evidence to the Commons select committee for culture, media and sport.

Coun Budd stressed how much a strong arts scene helped universities to attract students, adding: “They then stay in the area and create businesses.”

The committee is carrying out an inquiry into the funding decisions of the Arts Council, which will spend £1.4bn of public cash between 2011 and 2015.

Arts organisations in the North-East receive just £5.59 a year for each of the region’s residents, compared with £21.33 per head in London.

The North East Culture Partnership traces that huge disparity to the fact that the Arts Council has major offices in Manchester and London - but none in the North-East.

During yesterday’s session, Labour MP Ben Bradshaw made clear that views from the North-East would be crucial when the committee’s report was submitted to ministers.

He told Mr Mowbray and Coun Budd: “You are the region we will be highlighting in our evidence.”

Earlier, Munira Mirza, London’s deputy mayor for education and culture, denied there was a funding imbalance that favoured the capital.

Speaker later, Jane Tarr, director, North, Arts Council England, said: "We face a real challenge in making sure National Lottery money gets used in areas where there is not enough great art and culture.

"We should, however, acknowledge how much has already been achieved for the public. The impact of National Lottery investment in the North-East over the last two decades is significant.

"It has transformed the region's cultural landscape, with the building of venues such as the Sage, BALTIC and the National Glass Centre, as well as the iconic Angel of the North."

However, she added: "We are working in challenging economic times with pressure on our own income and local authority funding, but despite this we have increased our support through lottery for grassroots activity in the last three years, as demonstrated in some of these examples here in the North-East. 

"We recognise there is more to do and if National Lottery income levels stay healthy we will improve on this trend, bringing great art and culture as close to home as possible for everyone."

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