Cutting arts and culture budgets might be a tempting quick fix for cash-strapped councils, but slashing spending in these areas could damage an area’s economic and social value, shoring up bigger problems in the long term.
Local government has been the unsung hero of arts and culture funding in the UK for many decades, providing support for cultural activities in local communities long before a national arts council was established. To this day local authorities remain a key strategic partner of Arts Council England and are one of the main funders for arts and cultural organisations up and down the country.
However, councils have seen their budgets cut drastically and, in response, many have made proportionately higher cuts to their cultural provision. As a result, local authority funding for the arts and culture has fallen by 19% in the last three years. Many arts organisations are struggling and the cuts have clearly hit the sector badly. But it is, perhaps, the long-term effects that these cuts could have on their areas that councils should be most concerned by.
NLGN’s report On with the show, supported by Arts Council England, argues that local authorities should not see cuts to arts and culture funding as a ‘quick fix’ solution to financial woes. Arts and culture provide economic and social value, the lack of which could lead to greater problems for local authorities in the long term.
Our research found the primary reason for local authorities to fund arts and culture is for economic development. The sector can, of course, bring in money to an area through direct employment but it is its ability to attract businesses and visitors that is equally important. Put simply, the arts and culture create places that people want to live in. While arts and culture perhaps does not produce the high-income employment of other sectors, they are used to create vibrancy in an area. They not only encourage artists to live locally, but encourage other companies to locate there. Businesses want to root themselves in areas that have a suitable infrastructure, but also in places where their employees will enjoy a high quality of life. This should have an impact on the decisions councils make concerning the importance of supporting arts and culture.
For example, Darlington Borough Council looked at cutting non-statutory services that the law does not require but in the end concluded that to cut theatres, museums, parks etc. would create a ‘place heading for decline, not growth… a place people would choose not to visit and not to live in’. On with the show details a number of councils that are driving regeneration and growth through the arts and culture. Another great example is Wakefield Council, which is committed to its arts programme and, consequently, venues such as the Hepworth Gallery are attracting international visitors.
NLGN’s report acknowledges that councils will continue to face difficult financial decisions and, as a discretionary service, the arts and culture are likely to continue to be cut. But this does not necessarily mean that they should be deprioritised by local authorities,
On with the show recommends that authorities acknowledge the importance of the arts and culture in their corporate strategies and review all alternative models of delivery available before making drastic decisions on cuts to arts and culture. A variety of alternative models of support (including trusts, sharing services and partnerships) and their financial savings are detailed in the report. In particular, the report stresses that it is essential to maintain some staff capacity for the arts and culture in order that the council may move from being a funder to a facilitator of arts and culture. In this way authorities can help broker partnerships between arts and culture and local and national businesses.
The arts and culture are difficult for local authorities. Councils can continue to chip away at funding and very little impact will be felt immediately (except, of course, for those directly affected). What they must also be aware of, however, is the social and economic consequences that this slow erosion will have. Arts and culture may look like easy cuts today, but recovery from austerity may be made all the harder without them.
Claire Mansfield is a senior researcher with NLGN and author of On with the show – supporting local arts and culture.