Mayoral elections are coming up in many parts of England. What can a Mayor do to help fund the Arts?
Terry Grimley asks this on behalf of the new West Midlands Regional Authority. The article was commisioned by the think tank, Midlands Arts Progressive.
Midlands Arts Progressive
WHAT COULD A REGIONAL MAYOR DO FOR THE ARTS?
WHAT COULD THE ARTS DO FOR A REGIONAL MAYOR?
Recent years have seen a remarkable revival of the idea of city regions driving national economies.
In Britain, a belated acknowledgment that the existing economic
imbalance between London and the rest needed to be addressed has seen political devolution first to Scotland and Wales and subsequently, in a more limited way, the English regions.
The notion of a “Northern Powerhouse” – an economic pressure-cooker focused along the M62 corridor linking Manchester and Leeds – became one of the defining ideas of the Cameron-Osborne government. Later the “Midlands Engine” was added to the vocabulary of national regeneration as a complementary notion, although it has often seemed something of an afterthought in Westminster.
Elsewhere in Europe, the joining-up of large and satellite cities to form coherent and powerful economic regions has become a familiar strategy. Some even span national boundaries: for example, Oresund combines the cities of Copenhagen in Denmark and Malmo in Sweden, and is now joining Hamburg in Germany to create a co-ordinated international tourist destination.
Successful city regions are characterised by high-quality urban environments, excellent transport and communications, and a diverse range of economic activity in a dynamic relationship with higher education. They are also major centres of culture and creativity, in the widest sense of those terms.
Much of the discussion around the creation of the West Midlands Combined Authority and the wider concept of the “Midland Engine” has
so far focused – naturally enough – on investment, employment, education and training, housing and transport. Culture has been late in being invited to the table, but history teaches us that it is largely in their artistic achievements that cities are ultimately judged, whether it is the Florentine Renaissance, the musical life of Vienna or New York’s art scene.
The West Midlands has an extraordinary tradition of artistic achievement, from Shakespeare to the pioneering modern dress productions of his plays by Barry Jackson at the Birmingham Rep, from Edward Elgar to heavy metal. Since the middle of the 20th century the region’s cultural mix has been further enriched by immigration from the Commonwealth and elsewhere.
The arts and culture are of fundamental importance to the success of a city region for three reasons: firstly, they significantly enhance the lives of residents; secondly, they represent a substantial industry and source of employment in their own right, and thirdly they are a standard bearer for the region, defining its identity, raising its profile and prestige, and directly stimulating tourism, migration and inward investment.
Looking forward, there will undoubtedly be many cultural opportunities for the West Midlands region – but we begin with a crisis.
Six years of central government austerity are cutting deep into local authority spending, threatening many hard-won achievements of recent years in the cultural field. The seriousness of this crisis is encapsulated in the threat of closure hanging over the New Art Gallery in Walsall -created to national acclaim as recently as 2000 to house the art collection donated to the town by Kathleen Garman, widow of the sculptor Jacob Epstein – and in the plight of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra just four years before it it is due to celebrate its centenary .
The appointment of the then 24 year-old Simon Rattle as conductor of the CBSO in 1980 fired the starting pistol for an extraordinary cultural renaissance in the city. Over the following 20 years, as Sir Jeremy Isaacs, chairman of the judges for European City of Culture 2008, pointed out, Birmingham pioneered regeneration through the arts, even before Glasgow. It was the first UK City outside London to draw up a comprehensive arts policy.
The CBSO itself rose rapidly from regional respectability to international acclaim, while the culturally-driven regeneration it triggered left lasting legacies in the move of Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet to the city to become
Birmingham Royal Ballet, and the creation of Symphony Hall – the best concert hall in the UK and one of the finest in the world.
It is important to recognise that this was not achieved in a period of plenty, but on the contrary in one of the most difficult times in the city’s history. It had recently witnessed the near-overnight collapse of much of its manufacturing industry, during a period of national recession in which it lost 90,000 jobs – more than Scotland and Wales combined.
This points to the perhaps counter-intuitive conclusion that the arts are not a luxury to be put aside when times get tough, but offer something more fundamental. It is surely no coincidence that the origins of the Arts Council can be traced back to the bleakest days of the Second World War.
Following Rattle’s legendary 18 years in charge, the CBSO continued to demonstrate a golden touch in identifying exceptional young conductors, selecting as his first two successors the Finn Sakari Oramo (now conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra} and the Latvian Andris Nelsons (now conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra).
When the CBSO announced in February 2016 that Nelsons’ successor would be a 29 year-old Lithuanian woman, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla – already a rapidly-rising star in Los Angeles, where she has served her orchestral apprenticeship – it quickly became the international story of the year in the classical music world.
Not only has the orchestra recruited another outstandingly gifted leader on the cusp of international acclaim, but there are signs that she may well possess the rare combination of musical authority and personal charisma to achieve a second “Rattle effect”.
With the additional focus of the orchestra’s centenary in 2020, that is a huge potential flag-waving opportunity for the West Midlands. But in December came the news that Birmingham city council, which is under great financial pressure, has slashed its support for the orchestra by 25 per cent, or £228,000 in cash terms. It is now the most poorly-funded of the UK’s regional orchestras.
Birmingham city council’s dire financial situation owes much to poor past decisions – notably an ill-advised attempt to resist a legal ruling over pay discrimination and over-optimistic budgeting for the Library of Birmingham, which opened in 2013 – but it is fundamentally the result of cuts in grant support from central government which will amount to £821m between 2010/11 and 2017/18, with more than £100m being cut in 2015/16 alone.
At a time when education and social services are facing cuts no-one would argue that the arts should be exempt, but let’s add a little perspective at this point. Even in 2015/16, after several years of swingeing cuts, the council’s total spending was £3,170m: in times of relative plenty its annual spending on the arts was around £9m.
These figures reflect the fact that on the national as well as the regional level, arts funding has always been highly marginal: a former director of West Midlands Arts once pointed out that his entire annual budget was the equivalent of one packet of crisps for each resident. The optimistic lesson to take from this is that a relatively small adjustment can achieve a Micawberish swing between misery and happiness.
What is ultimately most disturbing about the position of Birmingham city council, however, is that it actually appears to have made a decision to wash its hands of the arts. This is not only remarkable in view of its own achievements in the 1980s and 1990s, it is an extraordinary position to be adopted by a city with the standing and supposed aspirations of Birmingham.
It certainly opens it up to further unflattering comparisons with its arch-rival Manchester, which has invested heavily in its arts infrastructure including its much-publicised International Festival.
There is a growing perception that not only Manchester but also many other regional cities value the arts as an integral part of their economic portfolios in a way which is simply no longer the case here. Coventry, for so long in Birmingham’s cultural shadow, has put itself forward as a candidate for UK City of Culture, hoping to replicate the benefits achieved by Derry and, this year, Hull. And at this point we emerge from the cloistered world of the arts into a bigger picture of cities battling for status and attention in a highly competitive economy.
This situation is highly frustrating for the CBSO, given its vibrant artistic health and great potential for further development in the near future. But it is very far from being the only arts organisation in the city under severe pressure: the Birmingham Rep and Birmingham Royal Ballet also face considerable difficulties, to identify only the most high-profile, “building-block” institutions in the artistic life of Britain’s second largest city.
Birmingham Museums, despite having taken a step away from the city council into independent trust status, remain heavily dependent upon its funding. There are ambitious development plans in the pipeline for the Museum & Art Gallery, which would be a timely complement to the commercial development now taking place around it in Paradise, Arena Central and the Colmore business district. But the reality is that at the moment the trustees are more focused on keeping the doors open here and at their seven branch museums (since the first draft of this paper, the city council has announced that a proposed £750,000 cut to the museums has been reversed, revealing that when a robust case is put forward money can still be found down the back of a sofa).
In fact, it is impossible to recall a time when there was quite such a bizarre contrast in this city between private boom and public bust. Recent figures showed that construction in Birmingham city centre (overwhelmingly, though not exclusively, commercial) has reached record levels, while cultural infrastructure which has taken decades to build up is crumbling before our eyes.
Inevitably the big players attract the headlines, but Birmingham has some smaller, often more idiosyncratic organisations which give its artistic life a particular texture: MAC, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, DanceXchange, the internationally admired Birmingham Opera Company, Stan’s Cafe theatre company and Ex Cathedra – a baroque-specialist choir with a long and growing list of new commissions to its name.
If you think about the classic subsidised art forms which the Arts Council first set out to promote – fine art, drama, ballet, opera and classical music – a city might perhaps conclude that they should be supported because they are associated with an educated, middle-class audience whose jobs it might wish to attract.
That would be a logical – and perhaps refreshingly honest – way of thinking, but it’s not the way the Labour clique which drove Birmingham’s renaissance in the 1980s thought. They just felt their fellow citizens deserved the opportunity to try out, and enjoy, the best artistic life possible. That might sound idealistic, but it was also matter-of-fact.
What followed from it was the recognition that a city’s artistic life has a diversity and ecology which reaches far beyond the subsidised sector to embrace popular and street culture and education. The role of schools in introducing citizens to the arts was central: another once hard-won argument which, nationally, has faced dismantling in a brave new era of Gradgrind-like educational orthodoxy.
The decision by Mirga Grazinyta-Tyla to conduct four schools concerts in only her second visit to Birmingham as CBSO music director (music directors of major orchestras are rarely seen conducting children’s concerts) is an interesting statement in this context.
It seems that we are in danger here of forgetting our recent history. And, unfortunately, on this occasion those who forget history are in danger not of reliving it, but of losing it altogether.
So, what can we do, first of all, to make up lost ground?
The Birmingham cuts are particularly severe, but probably reflect a wider reality that a golden age of local authority funding is drawing to an end. Difficult though it may be, serious efforts need to be made to identify new models of funding. There is an important role for a newly elected mayor to play here, as an advocate working in partnership with arts organisations, the business community and local and central government.
There is also a crucial role for the mayor to play, in partnership with colleagues from other cities, in arguing for a larger share of existing arts funding.
The 2013 report Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital [The RoCC Report – GPS Culture, coming to a conclusion], produced on their own initiative and at their own expense by three veteran arts administrators, documented the extraordinary imbalance between public spending on the arts in London and the rest of the country.
To take some headline figures: it calculated that combining Arts Council England spending with the direct funding from DCMS to 16 “national” companies resulted in a spend of £68.99 per head of population in London, compared to £4.58 in the rest of England.
You might assume that this reflects – or causes! – a much higher level of interest in the arts in the capital. But no: figures published in the annual survey of arts participation, Taking Part, show that the proportion of Londoners who do not engage with the arts at all (24 per cent) is actually slightly higher than the English average (22 per cent), while the proportion engaging three or more times a year only matches the national average (63 per cent).
But these figures only show part of the story. Arts organisations based in London are far better placed to raise additional funds through commercial sponsorship and personal philanthropy than their counterparts elsewhere.
When it came to the Arts Lottery, the report found that the population of Westminster spent £14.5m on lottery tickets and got £408m back whereas, by contrast, County Durham spent £34m and got £14m back.
The authors suggested that £120m a year could be raised to promote arts in the English regions simply by equalising lottery distribution on a per capita basis.
Despite many people pointing out the imbalance in arts funding between London and the rest, and acknowledgments from within the funding system – notably the Arts Council’s much-trumpeted 1984 mea culpa document The Glory of the Garden – little or nothing has been achieved.
In fact, Arts Council spending outside London, which was 19.6 per cent of the total in 1981-82 – that is, in the lead-up to Glory of the Garden – had fallen to 17.8 per cent by 2012/13.
The 2014 House of Commons Select Committee on the work of the Arts Council concluded: “London has long received a disproportionate share of arts funding. To a limited extent [my italics] this reflects London’s position as the capital city. However, there remains a clear funding imbalance in favour of London at the expense of tax payers and lottery players in other parts of the country. ACE is well-placed to restore some balance and must do so with greater urgency.”
The committee made the specific recommendation that lottery spending in London should be limited to a per-capita figure. However, some determined campaigning will be required to deliver this.
If such a transition were possible in the short to medium term, what vision might we have for the cultural life of the West Midlands in 10-20 years’ time?
Leaving aside for a moment any uncertainty over Brexit, let us fast-forward to 2030 to imagine a young, economically buoyant city in which the arts seamlessly take their place within a smarter, more visually-stimulating environment.
Like their counterparts in Vienna and Amsterdam, Brummies take the tram to the theatre and concerts. Buildings are growing taller and better designed.
Having taken off on the back of becoming the first stop on the UK’s new high-speed rail network, the city has not paused for breath.
Expanded and refurbished museums draw tourists from London and other cities to Curzon Street. Digbeth, the former ugly duckling which for so long stubbornly refused to turn into a swan, is finally realising its long forecast potential. Hordes of young artists, makers and designers – some of them refugees from London gentrification – are hard at work in converted Victorian factories and avant-garde new-builds.
Their work complements the ongoing revival of the West Midlands automotive industry and the region’s growing legal and financial, higher-education and life-sciences sectors.
Out at the airport, UK Central – Britain’s answer to Euralille – is quickly building a critical mass of activity, including its new film studios where several international blockbusters have already rolled off the production line.
A time traveller suddenly transported to this time and place might be struck by a couple of oddities. Firstly, while London newspapers are still running favourable travel features about the West Midlands, they apparently no longer feel it necessary to launch them with apologetic disclaimers.
And the BBC is actively re-establishing a centre for production in the region. Its increasingly conspicuous absence just became too embarrassing.
All this may seem to paint too Birmingham-centric – and too city-centre-centric – a picture. Yet Birmingham city centre is the inevitable starting point, because many of the region’s major cultural institutions are concentrated there.
But important opportunities can be found elsewhere in the region, like Coventry’s City of Culture bid and ambitious development plans at the Black Country Living Museum, part of Dudley’s unique concentration of national tourist attractions.
All of this – making up lost ground and drawing together future opportunities – needs a clear overview and strong leadership. The stage is set for our new elected mayor.
This article was prepared for the think-tank, Midlands Arts Progressive. MAP welcomes you to use the article, but asks that you credit Terry Grimley and Midlands Arts Progressive.
Terry Grimley was arts editor of The Birmingham Post from 1979 to 2009.