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Birmingham arts organisations facing unprecedented financial crisis

Birmingham arts organisations facing unprecedented financial crisis

🕔26.Mar 2013

symphonyBirmingham’s reputation as a leading venue outside of London for the performing arts is under unprecedented threat from public spending cuts.

Some of the biggest names, including the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Birmingham Royal Ballet, have already made substantial savings by reducing the number of performances, shedding staff and cutting back on community-related activities.

Both organisations have seen their grant income from the city council and the Arts Council reduce by about £4 million since 2010, and must now face the prospect of even tougher cuts in 2014-15 and beyond as the Government’s austerity programme continues to bite.

Experts familiar with the arts scene are becoming increasingly concerned about future prospects.

It seems likely that both CBSO and BRB will be forced to move to more populist forms of entertainment in order to maximise audience levels and ticket sales with less chance of new work.

There are fears that Birmingham may either lose or suffer scaled-back versions of one of its ‘crown jewel’ list of organisations which include CBSO, BRB, the Ex Cathedra choir, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Birmingham Jazz.

Such an outcome would be a blow to Birmingham’s reputation at home and abroad and would probably result in the long term in reduced income from tourism.

There are also fears that some of the existing performance space in the city centre will become surplus to requirements and may have to be sacrificed.

The knock-on effect on the finances of Symphony Hall and the Town Hall of continuing to scale back the number of live performances should not be underestimated. Both buildings are owned by the council and are already heavily subsidised from the public purse.

The financial crisis was underlined by city council deputy leader Ian Ward, who has ordered CBSO to report to him on its financial standing quarterly in return for a £1.5 million grant.

Cllr Ward said CBSO had to make significant savings and was relying on contributions from reserves to balance its books. There was a clear risk to public money if the organisation failed to meet its savings targets.

Eighteen months ago, musicians at the CBSO took a pay cut to help meet a £300,000 shortfall in funding. Members of the Musicians’ Union voted to accept a 3.2 per cent cut as part of a package of money-saving measures which include a reduction in holidays and increased work commitments.

A plan to encourage CBSO to merge with Performances Birmingham Ltd, which runs the Town Hall and Symphony Hall, has collapsed.

The move, encouraged by the city council, would have produced significant economies of scale and allowed the two organisations to reduce financial risks, but trustees could not reach agreement.

Meanwhile, there are concerns among some members of the council’s controlling Labour group about continuing to spend large amounts of money on ‘highbrow’ arts organisations while at the same time cutting funding for social care and front-line public services.

Half of the council’s funding for arts organisations, £4 million, goes to Performances Birmingham and the CBSO, leaving scores of smaller organisations to scrabble for the remaining cash. The council plans to reduce its overall arts funding budget by £2.15 million by 20125-16.

A cabinet report by Val Birchall, the council’s assistant director for culture commissioning, makes it clear that arts organisations will be expected to help themselves by working more closely together and should not imagine they can rely on public funding in future.

The report states: “The city council has recognised the importance of cultural assets and programmes to its priorities but it has also indicated a need for cultural organisations to respond to these financial imperatives and encouraged them to look for creative ways to improve their future viability.”

One initiative that was designed to help arts organisations face up to dwindling grants, creation of the Arts Council-funded Music Hub, has not been as successful as the council hoped.

The hub was set up to reduce duplication of effort and costs by “building a collaborative approach to programming, marketing, education and outreach”. Although the hub has resulted in some examples of closer working, it failed to deliver amalgamation of CBSO and Performances Birmingham.

A CBSO spokeswoman pointed out that the £1.5 million council grant for 2013/14 represented 14.4 per cent of the organisation’s £9.9 million turnover.

She added: “In this changing economic landscape, we are committed to working with all our partners to achieve a strong and sustainable future for our internationally-renowned programme of performances and education work, ensuring that people across the city and region benefit fully from our work.

“However, like all Birmingham’s arts organisations, we are preparing for further reductions in funding in the coming years and have robust plans in place to address this, including the establishment of a privately funded Endowment, development of new partnerships with schools and community groups, capital investment in the facilities at our home, the CBSO Centre, and an increase in international touring with our acclaimed Music Director Andris Nelsons.

“Any reductions in funding are challenging in an already lean organisation but we have met our budgets every year for the last three years, achieved a 50 per cent increase in our income from sponsorship and donations to its highest ever level, and maintained the highest level of ticket income of any UK orchestra, so we are confident of achieving the best result for music in Birmingham.”

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