Reinventing the C Word

A Midsummer Night's Dream Full company - Credit Simon Annand (2)

Originally written for Prompt.

Something quietly extraordinary is happening in Bristol. While around the rest of the country stories flood in about the plight of precarious arts organisations and the cuts being passed down by local authorities, here there is a genuine conversation taking place between the arts community and local government about how they might move forward together in the face of reduced funding. In Bristol, the ‘c’ word is not cuts, but collaboration.

The healthy discussion that is currently taking place around the arts in Bristol is largely driven by the passionate commitment of new Mayor George Ferguson. Bringing with him experience from a range of architectural regeneration projects and a personal history of heavy involvement with the arts and cultural scene in Bristol, Ferguson has taken on the role with a firm belief in the importance of the arts to the city and its ongoing revitalization. He is keen to emphasise that he is “absolutely determined that I work with the arts to defend them as much as possible at a time when money is extremely tight”.

While the primary focus of concern might be on squeezed central funding from the Arts Council, money from local authorities also forms a vital part of theatres’ financial make-up. As councils everywhere face slashes to their budgets, the arts are one of the areas up for review in local government spending. One need only look at examples such as Newcastle Council’s widely publicised proposal to make a 100% cut to arts funding in the city and now Westminster’s decision to do the same by 2015 to understand the difficulties that theatres are currently facing.

“Like everywhere else in the country, the landscape is pretty bleak in terms of support for the arts in Bristol and particularly in the region around Bristol,” says the Bristol Old Vic’s artistic director Tom Morris, acknowledging that the city is no exception in terms of funding decreases. “But the exciting thing – and for me the completely new thing – is that in Bristol there is a way of thinking about arts provision and the cultural life of the city which is holistic.”

In marked contrast with the attitude of many other local authorities, Bristol City Council views the arts as a vital component in the life of the area. As Morris puts it, “the premise that the cultural life of the city is an irremovable part of what makes it viable, an irreducible ingredient in its ongoing success, is already made here”. Comparing Bristol to other cities across the UK, Ferguson adds, “maybe we’re the least apologetic of all the cities about the importance of investment in the arts”.

To illustrate his argument about the regenerative power of the arts, Ferguson points to the example of the Tobacco Factory, a once derelict and abandoned industrial building that he took over and renovated 15 years ago. Replacing the old tobacco industry with a hub of cultural activity, the Tobacco Factory is now home to a thriving theatre and has helped to revive the surrounding area, providing economic stimulus in the form of bars, restaurants and other businesses. As Ferguson observes, “it’s a completely different place to the one that I found 15 years ago”. He is also emphatic about the financial value of the city’s culture, suggesting that “every pound that goes into the arts is probably resulting in £10 of regeneration benefit within the greater community”.

But this focus on the arts as a key element in the regeneration of an area is more than a simple economic argument. While there is proof that a flourishing arts scene stimulates economic activity, it is also an attraction for people to move to the area and therefore sustain it going forward. Morris argues that this is something that arts organisations need to recognise just as much as local authorities. “The arts need to be part of a holistic conversation,” he insists. “There isn’t a separate conversation about the arts; there’s a conversation about the health and regeneration and growth of the whole city, which includes the arts.”

One current example from Bristol effectively demonstrates what can be achieved when the arts become an integral part of wider considerations about an urban area. Following the success of last year’s production of Treasure Island on an outdoor ship, the Bristol Old Vic is once again taking to the streets of the city for its summer family show, creating an ambitious open-air woodland set. Meanwhile, as part of an entirely separate initiative, the Mayor is introducing traffic-free Sundays in the city centre. Thanks to the atmosphere of open discussion, these two projects have been able to link up, benefitting all parties involved.

In order for these holistic conversations to take place, however, arts organisations need to work together. Rather than competing for a decreasing pot of funding, Morris suggests that the arts community has the best chance of survival when venues join forces. He provides the example of the Bristol Old Vic and the Tobacco Factory Theatre: “We’ve discovered that both of our cases for funding are stronger if we’re collaborating in how we strategise them. That’s not necessarily an easy position to get to, but it’s really vital.”

Speaking about the need for collaboration, Ferguson positions the local authority at the heart of such relationships. “It’s a four-way partnership between the arts organisation, local government, the Arts Council and business,” he explains, stressing the urgent need to bring business into this equation as government funding contracts. “I think the local authority can be the enabler that helps those four-way partnerships to happen,” he adds.

This enabling might take the form of making introductions to local businesses, initiating discussions between the various different parties, or simply ensuring that the arts remain part of the overall conversation about an area. What Ferguson makes clear, however, is that the relationship between arts organisations and their local authority cannot be about funding alone.

“We don’t want to hear that they want loads of money throwing at them, because that is the scarcest resource at the moment,” he says, injecting a stark note of realism. “But we do want to hear that they would like to work in partnership with us in order to seek maybe a more social-entrepreneurial way of proceeding.” Returning to that notion of collaboration, Ferguson continues, “it’s not a patronising partnership, it’s a partnership of equals, in that we both have the common interest of drawing audience activity and investment”.

Bristol is not entirely alone in this collaborative attitude. Further north, where cuts to local authority funding are even deeper, there are also positive stories. While the threat to arts funding in Newcastle rightfully received much media attention, below the radar other councils are working productively with arts organisations to weather the challenging financial environment. In Bolton, for instance, the local council has worked hard to maintain standstill funding to the Octagon Theatre since 2009, despite reductions in overall budgets. The theatre is unequivocal about the importance of this support.

“Since I arrived in Bolton a year ago the support of the town has been remarkable,” says chief executive Roddy Gauld. “During my first meeting with the Council Chief Executive he said he was proud that Bolton had three things: a major football club, a university and a producing theatre.”

As well as protecting funding as far as possible, Bolton Council has worked collaboratively with the Octagon in other ways. The theatre has recently received a £50,000 grant, for example, which will go towards refurbishing the theatre’s cafe and bar this summer. Beyond financial assistance, the council has also been able to think more creatively about alternative ways in which to support the Octagon, offering practical help such as IT and property services. According to Gauld, this all stands as proof of Bolton Council’s recognition of the role that the theatre plays in attracting visitors to the town.

Once again, the example of Bolton has as much to do with a valued relationship between the theatre and its local community as it has to do with money. “I think the Council is totally aware of the value the theatre brings to Bolton,” says Gauld. “It’s obviously important to them as an asset, and of course there’s the social and economic impact we make, but they also see and feel the town’s sense of pride and affection for the Octagon.”

Commenting on the similar sense of pride that people in Bristol hold for the arts in their city, Morris talks about the “character” of a place and the need for local government to understand the individual character of its local area. It is ultimately this understanding that is key to any relationship between local authorities and the arts. “In significantly different ways, cultural activity is a really important part of the character of every city,” Morris argues. “There’s a lesson to be learn from looking at a city, trying to work out what its particular cultural character might be, and then trying to invest in that.”

Photo: Bristol Old Vic’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Simon Annand.