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There’s more to the arts funding gap than meets the eye – exclusive

November 5, 2013

Freelance writer; regular out-of-London theatre reviewer for The Observer, Clare Brennan, writes exclusively for the YDM blog:

Much of last week’s media comments on the gap between the capital and the regions when it come to arts funding seems to have blindly copied (deliberately or accidentally?) the divisive tone set by the report. According to “Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital”  was “compiled by three arts professionals with no external funding”. Numbers given related to two non-equivalent elements: London and the regions. Headline figures demonstrated that per capita spending on the arts in London is significantly higher than in the regions, seemingly with the intention of pitting London and the rest of the country against one another. If this is what the authors wanted, they got it: cries of outrage were unleashed from the regions; a rebalance demanded.

I write as someone who lives and works in the regions, who cares about the regions and finds London provincialism tiring and exasperating. I want the regions to get their fair share of my taxes, same as everybody else (and Melvyn Bragg!). But aren’t we letting ourselves be distracted from the main issue at stake here: the decreasing amounts of money available to the arts in London, in the English regions and in the other countries of the Union; along with the long-term under-capitalisation of infrastructures in the regions?

The report selects its figures in such a way as to highlight variation between capital and regions. For instance, ‘London’ is taken to be “the area over which the Mayor of London and the London Assembly have jurisdiction, with a population of 8.2m”. This is perfectly valid. It is also a particular choice and just one way of presenting the facts. Depending on how the boundaries of London defined, the population figure could be double this, or more.

The decision to describe allocation of funding in terms of per capita comparisons is not helpful.  If comparisons must be made, it would be more useful to know what organisations receive how much funding and how many people benefit from the services they provide. If London receives more funding than the regions, it is likely that its arts organizations are accessed by greater numbers of people, many of whom are non-Londoners.

According to the Greater London Authority, in the capital there are 1,030 museums and galleries; 214 theatres, 566 screens in 108 cinemas, 349 live music venues and 10 major concert halls. It would be instructive to have totals of similar organizations throughout England.

The report calculates that the Arts Council and National Lottery between them spend £770 million on the arts in England, including London. According to the same Greater London Authority Report, 1912, the creative industries contribute £19 billion to London’s economy.

Money spent in London does not only benefit Londoners. Numbers of people from the regions regularly visit the capital’s theatres, museums and galleries as well as shops and cinemas.  London has an international reputation as a cultural hub, attracting overseas tourists to the UK.  Many who come to visit London will then go on to visit the regions, where they will spend money on culture, accommodation, food and drink, etc.

Another peculiarity of the report: it singles out London, but does not indicate the level of funding other cities receive in relation to their surrounding regions: Newcastle in relation to Northumberland, for instance. Per capita comparisons would most likely show an imbalance here, as well. They are not the most appropriate measure.

A greater problem for the regions than any perceived disparity in allocation of arts funding is the under-resourcing of infrastructures. This impacts on the ability of people to access arts provision in their region. People who live in or around London can easily travel to and from its numerous theatres and other cultural centres because they are well served by public transport. Even if one were to discount the numbers of seats London theatres sell to domestic and foreign visitors, they would still be more accessible to more people than theatres in regional cities.

In many regional centres, it is either impossible or extremely difficult to travel to and from the theatre or cinema by public transport in the evening. This is true within cities and also between cities that are no further distant than one end of London from another. Try travelling back to Hull from York or Leeds after a performance, for instance; or back to Hull from Sheffield. The trains do not run. Even if they did, the cost of train tickets would make an outing too expensive for most people.

The north-south high-speed rail plans are a far more significant indication of the London-centric imbalance of investment in England and the rest of the UK than is arts funding. A functioning, reliable railway system along the M62 corridor, for instance, would vastly improve economic and social conditions for millions living in this part of the world, as well as boosting the arts by making its funding go further in terms of reach and access, not to mention savings in costs to arts organizations.

The report advocates investing “substantially in cultural production in the regions”. It’s a recommendation we can all heartily endorse. But it will be a pointless exercise if other measures are not taken concurrently. Arguing against present levels of arts funding in London is a distraction. We should all be arguing for improved funding across the board in the regions.

Clare Brennan

Twitter: @clarembrennan


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