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Birmingham arts world ‘must look to self-help in age of austerity’, report warns

Birmingham arts world ‘must look to self-help in age of austerity’, report warns

🕔22.Jul 2016

Birmingham must enter a new age of self-help to replace diminishing public funds if the city’s arts and cultural offer is to be safeguarded and improved, a major inquiry has warned.

With the city council, the traditional funder of the arts, facing further deep spending cuts, the future of some of Birmingham’s best known cultural gems will be highly dependent on new and innovative forms of collective action generating financial support from the third sector and businesses.

The initial report of the Birmingham Cultural Investment Enquiry calls for a fresh approach to unlock the resources of the business community and its expertise by creating “investable propositions founded on an understanding of mutuality and joint success”.

The Birmingham Cultural Investment Enquiry began in April, conceived as a joint initiative between the city council, Chambers of Commerce, the cultural sector, Aston Business School and Arts Council England. It was tasked with conducting an initial three-month investigation into new investment-based models for culture in the city and is chaired by Birmingham chamber chief executive Paul Faulkner.

In his first report Mr Faulkner says pressure on the public purse means that Birmingham has to rethink the way arts and culture are delivered and that “this is not a moment for business as usual.”

Mr Faulkner added:

Whereas in the past the council has taken a significant leadership role in shaping the cultural life of the city, in future this will increasingly be as part of a broader coalition of support to the sector. Cultural, community and business organisations need to step up alongside the Council and make sure that the future is world class.

Birmingham has the opportunity to do something different and ground breaking in how it supports culture within the city.

There is a general wind of positive change blowing through Birmingham at present. There is the chance for the city to build on the world class venues, organisations and individuals already here, and create an environment where culture will not only continue to flourish and develop but can be an example to others across the world.

The enquiry praises the role of Culture Central, the new development agency for culture in Birmingham, and also recognises the determination of the city council to seek alternative funding mechanisms.

But there is a clear warning that public sector funding for the arts could soon be a thing of the past:

Birmingham City Council has traditionally been a major funder of the arts and culture sector in the city. The council is now over halfway into a decade of year-on-year cuts to its overall budget, with austerity set to continue for the foreseeable future.

As a result, it is now forecasting significant cuts to its funding for the arts over the next three years. Potentially, a worst case scenario, this could result in no direct support to organisations in future.

For Birmingham’s cultural sector to be sustained, and preferably to grow in scale, quality and reach, collective action and innovative thinking which has begun through this enquiry needs to be galvanised, adopted, developed and implemented.

As the public purse shrinks there is considerable evidence that third sector organisations, reliant on various forms of giving, are increasingly picking up the cost, the enquiry found.

Major philanthropic and corporate giving is heavily dominated by London reflecting the location of many headquarters and the concentration of wealth in the capital.

There is now clear evidence that the sector is recognising that its future is highly dependent on new and innovative forms of collective action. This is not a return to the reductive narrative of joint services and simple cost efficiencies but a commitment to developing the financial base, creative output and community engagement it provides in radical new ways.

It is important to recognise that the development of Culture Central itself is a forward thinking approach by the sector to addressing its own future success.

The enquiry warns that Birmingham’s current economic renaissance may depend on expanding the arts and cultural scene to improve the city’s ‘offer’ to outsiders.

As those of us who live in and around Birmingham already know, the city has been experiencing a renaissance in recent years with a number of exciting developments coming to life – and more on the way. But the aspiration – and need – is to do a lot more.

We want to be a city that can compete on a global scale. In fact, this is essential in an ever-shrinking and ever-changing world. We also need to ensure that all citizens in one of Europe’s youngest and most culturally diverse cities feel the benefits and participate in the evolution of the city.

Ensuring that world class culture continues to take place in Birmingham – and, crucially, that we develop and add to an already rich mix – is essential if the city is to fulfil its ambitions and undoubted potential.

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