How deep do the arts council cuts go?

17 September 2012

Only weeks after British culture was shown off to the world, the effects of the arts council cutbacks are beginning to be felt. Charlotte Higgins reports...

...I arrive in a sun-warmed farmyard at the end of a labyrinth of high-hedged lanes: the office of Take Art, an organisation that brings dance, theatre and performance to audiences in rural Somerset. Its neighbours, in the rose-covered outhouses, are an architect and a blacksmith.

But in the office, things are not as idyllic as they look. The workforce has halved since 2010. Against the wall lie banners with the slogan "We value the arts: against 100% arts cuts", left over from 2010's fruitless struggle against Somerset Council. They have lost around £70,000 a year, taking into account cuts from local councils, too. They still have their arts council funding of £159,000 a year (£30,000 less than they asked for). But the result is that they are providing half the shows they used to. They have launched a fundraising scheme, with hopes to raise £10,000 – though chief executive Ralph Lister is unhappy that Take Art was turned down for ACE's Catalyst scheme, which offers support for fundraising and development. And, though he praises Bristol's Old Vic theatre, with whom Take Art is collaborating, he wishes there were more solidarity shown by the big, national companies. "I've heard a lot of talk about the responsibility of the larger organisations to connect with the smaller ones. Why doesn't [National Theatre director] Nick Hytner call up and say, 'Can we work on a proposal for a rural touring show?'"

One of the organisation's most prominent schemes is its Rural Touring programme. It's a way of getting excellent-quality performances to village halls, and serving areas where access to the arts would otherwise be nonexistent: for 30% of their audiences, says Lister, the work that Take Art brings is the only art they get to see. Often this is quite adventurous: experimental theatre company Kneehigh (Brief Encounter, The Red Shoes) was a regular in their earlier days. Lister points out that, in rural areas, getting in the car and driving to Bath or Bristol may not be an option, as fuel prices rise and pressure on household purses increases; meanwhile theatres in the smaller towns, such as the Merlin in Frome, have been hammered by Somerset's cuts and are clinging on to life.

Take Art offers a "menu" of different shows to village halls, and can subsidise the work to make it affordable – theoretically. In some areas, such as Mendip, the loss of council funding means the subsidy is gone, and the villages can no longer take on the risk. Frances Horler, a retired legal adviser from Kilmersdon near Frome, tells me she has been bringing Take Art shows to her village for 15 years – until now. "We built up an audience," she says. "It's all part of the community feeling of the village." For her, it wasn't just about the evenings out, but a way of gathering people together, and making a few quid to keep the village hall going. Max Miller, from Chilcompton in North Mendip, agrees. "It's a way of people getting to know each other, like the church, or the pub, or post office." Sometimes performers would get involved in workshops at the local primary school. "It's been a strong part of what the village is – its identity." Despite the loss of subsidy, Miller plans to book future shows at full price, but he'll be go for the less adventurous stuff. "In the past, we've had musicians from all over the world – Africa, Eastern Europe – and without the subsidy we wouldn't have been able to take the risk."

The arts are not yet at crisis point. There is no apocalypse, but the damage is real. There will be changes, some of them obvious: a local museum reducing its hours and programme; a local theatre having more dark nights, and fewer shows of real imagination. Other changes will be less tangible: a teenager not getting the spark of inspiration that makes her decide to train as an architect, a village community less bound together by shared experience. Arts organisations are, for the most part, putting a brave face on things, working out how to adjust, not wanting to admit there will be any diminution in what they can do; artists like Alexander Kelly will find ways to make art because that is their life's calling. Walking round the busy, impressive museums in Sheffield, it's clear that those who work here are coping as well as they can. It's still a great place to visit.

But I wonder: how long can you chip away at what a museum does before it starts to look down-at-heel? How far can you cut an exhibition programme before the place feels static? How far can you strip away a staff and still expect them to perform a crucial role in the education of a city's young? What is the point at which a museum, at some quiet, unmarked moment, stops being a questioning, contemplative space at the heart of its city's intellectual and imaginative life, and becomes an irrelevance? The fear is, here and everywhere, that this autumn's hardships are just the beginning: there will come a point when no amount of ingenuity, flexibility and cunning can stand in the way of empty coffers.

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