Thursday, 7 October 2010

THREATS AND OPPORTUNITIES - the public sector and the arts

The following piece is an extract taken from a contribution I gave to a recent Morning Star Education Seminar on Government funding and working class culture. This was part of a series on cultural topics that continue into January. Future events on Burns; Tressell & the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and Orwell. The details can be found here - 
The first seminar brought together, myself, Dave MacLennan (ex -Wildcat, and producer of A play, a pie and a pint at  Oran Mor in Glasgow.) and Susan Galloway, a researcher from Glasgow University’s Centre for Cultural Policy Research. All of us focussed on the importance of public funding to the cultural sector and expressed their concern about the cuts planned by the ConDem government.
But we also debated alternative sources of funding, and the opportunities and drawbacks of each. I listed big business, trade unions and charitable trusts as options - all of which had major limitations. The volume of public funding means that it is no surprise that at both local and Scottish level this provides the lions share of cultural funding. The Scottish Arts Council (now Creative Scotland) had nearly £60m to distribute in grants to the arts in 2010 (although about £12m came from the National Lottery) - plus the Scottish Government funds some national companies direct. But Scottish local government - in the latest figure I can discover - spent £274m on the provision of culture in 2003-4 (figs from Cultural Commission report of 2005). Clearly this funding is crucial to the current ‘healthy’ arts scene in Scotland. 
Elsewhere in my contribution I listed some of the problems that relying on one single source of funding can bring. From political censorship, to self-censorship; from over-dependence to being at the whim of fashion.
Having said all this - why is it important that the public sector continues to fund cultural and artistic work? Haven’t I outlined more than enough difficulties in doing so?
That may be so - but withdrawal of the funding that currently comes from the ‘state’ - however inadequate and restricted it is (and that £274m from local authorities is only 2.5% of their total expenditure ) would mean both a damage to culture in general - and working class/progressive culture in particular.
Leaving the field to big business, and/or individual ‘rich’ supporters will mean the high-profile, city centre, Scotland-wide projects and product may well continue to be backed, but radical, challenging, and above-all locally based community work, will suffer.
And it is clear that public sector funding is already being cut, and faces further extensive surgery.
For Culture Minister, Fiona Hyslop to point to the maintenance (this year) of funding for Creative Scotland compared to the cuts planned at the Arts Council in England is fair comment. But it ignores the real damage that is starting and will get dramatically worse as cuts come the way of local councils and other public services. Figures of 10, 12,even 20% cuts have been bandied about. How far will non-statutory grants to local groups - or anyone producing for those local groups survive in that climate? yet again it will be local community-based art that will suffer. 
Finally - are there any positives? I think ironically, there ARE opportunities, if arts organisations can be flexible and imaginative enough to grasp them. Ironically they arise out of the very cuts we worry about.  There are already campaigns beginning in the fightback against these cuts. These campaigns will need to a) capture the support of local people and communities, and b) articulate the concerns of workers and service users. And there is strong evidence that TUs are aware of and wanting to make such alliances. Locally-based radical arts groups might be an ideal way of doing this. 
If I was one working in West Dumbarton for example - I’d be approaching the joint union/community campaign already working there, to see what work could be done together - and might also want to talk to people in the STUC, UNISON, the EIS, the PCS about opportunities.
So there are faint glimmers in the darkness, but there are many more threats. This is why cultural groups, trade unions, community groups etc should be working together - to use all the working classes talents in fighting the cuts to come. Let’s use cultural work to build campaigns like the ~STUC’s There is a better way, and in the process reinvigorate working class culture and local arts work.

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