Monday, March 28, 2011

Public funding of the arts: Leicester shows big is not always beautiful

I spent part of Friday at the Creative Garden event at Phoenix Square in Leicester. I met some old friends, made some useful new contacts and listened to some of the formal presentations.

One woman - I walked in halfway through her talk - seemed to be telling us exactly which boxes a work of art should tick. (Says who?) It is strange to invoke "diversity" to justify trying to make everyone work in the same way.

And Ross Grant, leader of the city council's Conservative Group and the party's mayoral candidate, spoke on arts policy. His talk was meant to be entitled "People not Palaces", but whoever did his PowerPoint slides had rendered it as "People not Places".

His point was that the age of big capital projects like the Phoenix Centre and the new Curve theatre in Leicester is over. The city council even spent another £400,000 on an abortive new art gallery. (Everyone hated the proposed design, at least for the proposed site on New Walk, and by the time it had been looked at again times had changed.)

Grant was interested in getting artists and craftsmen into empty shops in the city centre. Just putting up two large buildings and declaring that you have created a "Cultural Quarter" will not do. And, as someone from the audience said, if you disperse the culture more, people are more likely to spend money in local shops/

My own experience of Leicester's Cultural Quarter is through my writing group. We are not wholly satisfied with our current premises, so the committee decided to look into using some of the new facilities in the new quarter. We would like to be there, they would like to have us, but it turns out that a self-funded group like ours cannot afford the rates they charge for a room.

Grant said this is rather like what happens with council-run premises for new businesses. People who do not know much about business decide what facilities a new start up will require and produce facilities that only an established company could afford to rent.

The moral, as ever, is that the level of public spending is not the most important factor. It is quite possible that if a lesser sum could have done more good for the arts in Leicester if it had been spent in a more sensible way. Shiny new buildings are not always the answer.

This morning's Guardian quoted an Arts Council spokesman as saying that the £52m it somehow managed to lose on The Public in West Bromwich was "old news". This rather suggests an unhealthy sense of entitlement among the publicly funded arts sector and is another sign of the silly money that was thrown at the public sector in the later Blair and Brown years.

And tomorrow's Guardian has an article on arts funding by Polly Toynbee. You will not be surprised to learn that she regards the level of spending as the only thing that matters.


Anonymous said...

"This rather suggests an unhealthy sense of entitlement among the publicly funded arts sector"

You really have no idea do you of what is being destroyed by your party? Revolting.

Quite appropriately the captcha I had to enter to post the comment was 'CutsHa'.

Jonathan Calder said...

The Public cost £52m and went into administration before it opened. I do no think dismissing that as "old news" is an adequate response.

You clearly do. We shall have to agree to differ.

Yours is a typical Labour view. It does now matter how public money is spent, as long as it is spent.

dreamingspire said...

Living far away from Leicester, one tends to think of it as small and unimportant, but information from DfT is that the 7 largest metropolitan areas in England are London top (of course), and then the 6 areas with Passenger Transport Executives (West Midlands, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, etc). 8 and 9 (and I'm not sure of the order) are Leicester with Leicestershire and Nottingham with Nottinghamshire. (10 is Greater Bristol, and the quite important area of South Hampshire doesn't rank at all.)
Why does this matter? Because the same data is being used to designate City Regions, with consequences that affect rather more than public transport. Greater Manchester and a large area centred on Leeds are the first two City Regions.

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