How theatres can make everyone fight for the arts

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Originally Posted by

Tuesday 7 May 2013 11.48 EDT

Local theatres must engage with their communities through education and participatory initiatives, thereby creating an army of advocates governments can’t ignore

Is the conversation around arts funding becoming more grown up? There are signs that it is, and it couldn’t come at a better time – just a couple of weeks after Maria Miller laid out her stall at the British Museum with a speech that clearly saw the value of the arts being in the contribution they make to boosting the economy.

Well, the arts do make a considerable contribution to growth and the economy – as the report by the Centre for Economics and Business proves: they account for just 0.1% of public spending, but make up 0.4% of GDP. If such reports are couched in a way the Treasury understands, they should help – but it’s worth remembering that the arts do a great deal else apart from contributing to GDP.

Philanthropist Aileen Getty put it well a couple of weeks ago on making a $1m donation to London’s Circus Space: “One may question the importance of supporting the Circus Arts when basic needs in our cities are so great and not being met. I have thought deeply about this over the years, and believe you cannot underestimate the value of keeping wonder alive. Wonder keeps our spirits joyous and resilient.”

The What Next? meeting in London last week brought together those working in all art forms to discuss how to frame the conversation in different ways, and who is best placed to make the arguments in a manner that the government – not just the current coalition but all future governments of any political persuasion – will hear and understand. The same applies to local politicians of all political persuasions. The answer to the latter question is, of course, the electorate.

Governments expect the likes of Nicholas Hytner and Danny Boyle to bat hard for the arts, and despite their enormous achievements it’s too easy for their arguments to be dismissed as coming from those with a vested interest. But it’s quite another matter for politicians to dismiss the advocacy of the people who have the power to vote for them and their parties. They wouldn’t dare, in fact: hence the kind of U-turn that followed the widespread opposition to the proposed sell-off of the forests.

Perhaps it was a mistake to have so many people from the arts and so few members of the public in the room, and What Next? doesn’t begin to address fundamental funding issues in theatre, including the fact that we have too many theatre buildings, or funding inequalities across the country.

But the approach – which sees itself as a movement, not a campaign – is a smart way forward in more ways than one. For a start, it changes the tone of a debate that often seems stuck in the confrontational positions and slanging matches between artists and politicians of the 80s as a result of arts cuts. It repositions the debate in a place where dialogue can remain open and ongoing between those working in the arts and those running the country. The coalition will not be in power for ever, so the conversation must be with every political party, and it has to be ongoing, not just taking place when threats to funding are imminent.

Second, What Next? is founded on the idea that everything is connected: subsidised organisations, the commercial sector (Nica Burns offered her Nimax theatres around London for the day) and amateur arts (9.4 million people regularly take part in amateur arts activities) are deeply entwined with each other, as are the arts and education. There was a fantastic contribution from a teacher and students at Mulberry School in Tower Hamlets, who talked about how putting arts at the heart of the school had helped not only to raise grades but confidence and happiness. It would be good to have more evidence of this.

One of the most encouraging developments in recent years is the increased understanding from theatres and companies that education and participatory initiatives must be at the heart of their work. They are core activities, not add-ons, because for many in the local community it is these, not another revival of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that make a real difference to their lives – and which, crucially, they will be willing to defend.

The excellent My Theatre Matters campaign has already capitalised on the fact that audiences and artists can be mobilised as advocates for the arts and for individual buildings in their communities. What Next? recognises that the debate around arts funding needs to change too and that everyone involved in the arts needs to take responsibility for that debate and not just leave it to high-profile arts leaders.

The best place for everyone to start is in their own community, focusing on those who already engage with the arts and, perhaps more importantly, on reaching those who don’t. If building audiences and arts engagement, and widening arts access at grassroots level, are prioritised, it could be that the arts find they have an army of advocates. It is those people whom this and future governments can’t afford to ignore.

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