When Newcastle City Council announced its budget proposals in November, I said “the fight is very much on” – it turned out to be a different kind of fight to the one I imagined. It was bigger, more important and more complicated. No ringside seats, no public punch-ups. There was posturing of course, but it came down to relationships and partnerships. It always does in the end.
Last week, Arts Council England sat down with Newcastle City Council and the Community Foundation to finalise a plan that will see the development of a new revenue fund for culture with a guaranteed £600,000 from the local authority (50% of their previous spend), managed by the foundation. There will also be a commitment from the council to provide low interest borrowing for arts capital projects, and a commitment from Newcastle University to explore efficiency savings from shared building management in the city to contribute to the fund.
The Community Foundation’s management of the fund brings with it the scope to grow the fund with donations and other forms of giving, adding an experiment in northern philanthropy to the mix. As an ‘arm’s length fund’, it’s also protected from future city council cuts, but retains their civic interest in culture.
It’s a result, but a complex one. The original proposal of 100% cuts to independent cultural institutions has now been passed as part of the overall budget recommendations in one of the longest and most emotive council meetings ever seen in Newcastle (take a look at #toonbudget). The new 50% fund instead exists outside of the main budget, but is very much a guaranteed minimum figure.
50% is a tough ask, and that scale of cut can’t be the new normal, but we’re in a very different place from the symbolically and practically disastrous 100% proposal, which would have precipitated the closure of some of the best-known institutions in the country.
The Newcastle proposals surfaced some fundamental questions about culture and community; Lee Hall’s passionate and pivotal responses ensured that those questions had an inescapable vitality and immediacy. It was the value of the arts debate funnelled into a real-time and highly-charged situation, played out nationally, internationally and above all politically.
An early aspect of that debate locally was how it redrew old barriers, how easily the false binary either/or debates took hold and how a personal commitment to the arts somehow invalidated a public commitment to their value.
One of the many benefits of the arts is their facility to give the individual and the collective the means to find a voice. But when that voice gets a bit too articulate, it’s somehow no longer relevant, and suddenly unlinked from wider society. Will we ever uncouple an arts debate from a class one? I’m not sure, but I am sure it’s an on-going danger as budgets tighten even further.
There were a few moments at the height of media interest and political uncertainty when my office felt like a northern mash-up of The West Wing and The Thick of It, but the Arts Council’s approach, Geordie-ly defined by my communications colleague, was to “gan steady”. Sometimes that meant I had to hold my tongue, but it always meant that we held our nerve.
Our position is that we can’t be the sole public funder of the arts in a place, so the withdrawal of other public funding has consequences for our investment. We held that position diplomatically but firmly, and then talked about solutions. That was only possible because we were talking to long-term partners with whom we had history and proper human relationships based on years of joint investment, shared planning and collaborative thinking.
For over a decade, culture has been intertwined with the success stories of the city, and so the wider support was always there – it just took time to mobilise. Business leaders, community activists, universities, artists, audiences, and the public responded: sometimes carefully, often passionately, but always strongly, in private meetings, in public forums and in direct response to the budget consultation.
The strong evidence base of the economic value of the arts to the city was invaluable, as was the recognised contribution that culture makes to the city for visitors, tourists and businesses. Equally important were the well-documented numbers of young people taking part in aspiration-building arts projects and the individual stories of life-enhancing arts experiences. The cultural sector in the city came together with 100% is too much, a campaign that gave the public the chance to express how much they valued the arts, while recognising that huge savings had to be found.
So 100% has become 50%. There’s still a lot to do here, but we have the beginnings of an arts funding model that was born out of a crisis but can grow into something sustainable and ambitious that secures the long-term future for the arts. Perhaps we can call it “doing a Newcastle”?
This article was originally published on Guardian Culture Professionals Network.
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