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Arts Council has backed Birmingham’s diversity and emerging leaders

Arts Council has backed Birmingham’s diversity and emerging leaders

🕔28.Jun 2017

These remain difficult days for the arts nationally but, as the Chamberlain Files has often reflected, these are particularly challenging times for the sector in Birmingham, writes Andy Howell.

A commitment to arts and culture has been a feature of the city from its very earliest days. Access to the arts was a priority for the Victorian City ‘fathers’ and philanthropists and their cultural achievements sat alongside the, arguably, better known innovations in the development of modern local government, public health and such.

In more modern times Birmingham city council put the arts at the heart of the project to rebuild and refocus the city after the collapse of manufacturing industry. Birmingham built up an artistic and cultural infrastructure that was unparalleled in a regional city. The city’s arts organisations developed a national and international reputation that punched well above its weight.

From the very outset Birmingham understood both the economic and social value of the arts.

Sadly, over the last four or five years, the arts have been big losers in austerity (and locally the sector has faced additional distinct challenges). To all intents and purposes, Birmingham city council has taken the decision to get our of the culture business. While the biggest institutions in the city still receive council support, its level will continue to dwindle significantly over the coming years.

Birmingham’s cultural demise has presented something a challenge for Arts Council England (ACE) which has traditionally supported local arts on a partnership basis with local government. Many have been watching closely to see how ACE responds to the Birmingham challenge.

The Arts Council’s newly announced National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) grant programme (five year programme covering 2018 to 2022) is good news for the city.

Last year ACE announced its intention to broaden the base of the portfolio to embrace a wider range of smaller and emerging arts organisations. While many of these have regularly received funding from the Arts Council for particular projects, the NPO programme will now provide them with a greater level of security and continuity over the next five years.

The new programme also sets out to redistribute a greater share of funds to the regions and to meet the challenge of better reflecting the growing cultural diversity of the nation.

Birmingham has done reasonably well out of the new settlement as the Arts Council has set out to broaden the base of the programme within the city. A number of key organisations have now been added as NPOs and the ACE’s aims in Birmingham seem both positive and progressive.

Two factors strike me.

First, the new admissions to the Birmingham portfolio reflect a greater focus on diversity. Dance, music, theatre, the visual arts and film are all reflected here with support being provided to well respected companies, including: One Dance; Capsule; Grand Union; China Plate Theatre; and the Flatpack Film Festival.

A particularly interesting entrant to the programme is the Beetfreeks Collective who use the arts to work with young people from many different backgrounds while also supporting business and others in developing a greater understanding of both the potential and the needs of young people.

Secondly, the new Portfolio supports a range of organisations who are dedicated to artist development and to the creation of new opportunities for Birmingham’s diverse communities (many of them ‘hard to reach’).

Friction Arts is an artist-led organisation which has a long and proud record of developing programmes and talent in some of the lowest income ares of the city. Vivid is a collaborative space in Digbeth encouraging innovation and experimentation across a range of disciplines. Birmingham Open Media works at the intersection of arts and technology with a commitment to the measuring of the social impact of this work.

To a significant extent the new Portfolio entrants represent the future of the arts here in Birmingham. Here we can see the new leaders and shapers of the cultural sector in the city. These are organisations of the moment who blend their commitment to art and to artists with an entrepreneurial talent that has seen them develop and grow in difficult times. The new Portfolio is a vote of confidence in the future of artistic talent in the city.

The new entrants closely reflect modern day Birmingham in their work and we can clearly see how the city’s diverse community is shaping their work. Many believe that Birmingham’s future prosperity depends on the extent to which it can harness the potential of its diversity and the Arts Council appears to agree. For example, the grant allocated to Birmingham LGBT is particularly striking coming just a few weeks after Birmingham Pride, the city’s largest, most energetic and astonishing street festival.

Of course, there are challenges within the portfolio as well as new opportunities. The bigger and more established arts organisations and institutions in the city retain their support, although with cash standstill budgets. This cash freeze alongside the ongoing cuts in Birmingham city council budgets means that life will continue to be a real struggle for some of our best loved institutions, including Birmingham Museum and Art Galley, CBSO, Birmingham Re and Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Two budget allocations stand out for me. The first is an exception to the freeze which sees Birmingham Opera Company’s Portfolio funding rise by almost 50%. Birmingham Opera is an extraordinary organisation which takes opera way beyond its established boundaries, working with a wide and diverse audience while maintaining an international reputation for innovation. I understand that this uplift is designed to help create the ongoing and sustainable development of this work.

The second is the standstill budget for the Midlands Arts Centre (mac birmingham) which has been the big loser in the city council cuts. Mac birmingham is a genuinely multi-focussed organisation which is an important resource for many of our inner city communities. Hopefully the city council, ACE and our new Mayor can work together to ensure it’s stability and health over the coming years.

For the Arts Council this settlement is the first since the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee last year called for a greater shift in funding from London to the regions. Across the country there has indeed been a shift in resources – if only a modest one.

However, the £170 million of new funds for the regions is a welcome first step of new Chair Nicholas Serota. Some key London institutions — those best placed to take advantage of support from business and from philanthropy — have taken a reduction in funding to provide a greater support to the regions.

That we are seeing the start of the rebalancing of investment is a tribute to the work done by Peter Stark, Christopher Gordon and David Powell in their 2013 report ‘Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital.

However, four years on this report still reflects the great challenge we have in securing a more equitable allocation of cultural resources across the country. It will be fascinating to see how Serota — the very epitome of the London Arts establishment – is able to further shift resources to the regions.

Back in Birmingham and the West Midlands there is much for us to do. We have not done as well as other regions and no doubt this is a reflection of the lack of commitment to the arts in our own local priorities and programmes.

Whisper it quietly, but the biggest regional winner in this programme is Manchester who will receive £9 million pounds for the Factory Arts venue. Manchester remains a city that puts the arts and culture at the heart of both its economic and social development programmes. Manchester is a city that is being rewarded for both its persistence and its enterprise.

For me, Birmingham faces its greatest challenge at the grass roots. It is here that the largest reduction in funds have been felt and yet it is here where the impact of the arts is at its most dynamic. Community artists — young artists — do extraordinary things with small amounts of funding. They help us understand the changing nature of our city while opening up opportunities for those who most need them.

Across the West Midlands there is a need to find new ways of supporting and engaging with new and emerging talent. During his campaign to become West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street pledged to create a Mayor’s Fund to support small scale cultural activities at a community level.

Initiatives such as Mayor Street’s will be vital if we are to properly foster the next wave of artistic talent and cultural leaders. Beyond the grass roots, Mr Street must work hard to convince other civic leaders that the arts need too thrive in their respective boroughs.

The economic impact of arts investment is now long understood. We all benefit from a thriving cultural sector and much work needs to be done to not only regain past reputations and glories, but to be truly fit for the future.

The author acted as strategic director for Birmingham Arts Partnership and is a former deputy leader of Birmingham city council.

Main pic: ilands, Friction Arts

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