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Birmingham cultural gems fighting for survival as cuts threaten future of the arts

Birmingham cultural gems fighting for survival as cuts threaten future of the arts

🕔16.Jan 2015

Birmingham’s world class arts scene is fighting for survival as huge cuts in city council funding threaten the future of cultural gems such as Birmingham Royal Ballet, the CBSO and REP theatre as well as many smaller organisations, writes Paul Dale.

The sheer scale of grant reductions planned by the council – 37 per cent by 2018 – would destabilise the cultural offer and could see some organisations forced out of business, the Birmingham Arts Partnership (BAP) has warned.

In its response to the council’s budget white paper setting out proposed cuts, BAP described a grim future if the savings are not scaled back where “it would be difficult to see the existing range of organisations survive”.

BAP added: “For those that do, it would certainly mean less productions and exhibitions with a major downgrading of both the scale and quality of the arts available in Birmingham and a significant reduction in learning and community activity, particularly with schools, which in many ways has been a national model of good practice over many years.

“We would see a real impact on the ability of the arts to support the mainstream curriculum in schools as well as the capacity to support extra educational activity in dance, theatre, music and the visual arts and a diminution in home-grown talent development.”

Labour council leaders insist they have little option but to slash funding for culture and the arts as part of a strategy to identify £72 million of savings in the authority’s total budget for 2015-16.

Cabinet member Penny Holbrook said it would be wrong to protect culture when almost all other public services have to take their share of cuts forced on the local authority by the Government.

Addressing the Culture, Learning and Skills Overview and Scrutiny Committee yesterday, Cllr Holbrook said: “The cultural offer is a huge part of Birmingham and our visitor economy. But we can’t say ‘this is the cultural offer and we can’t go anywhere near it in terms of budget cuts when we are cutting other services’.”

The council cabinet attended a number-crunching away day this week to consider public reaction to the budget white paper which includes a tidal wave of opposition to arts and culture cuts. It remains possible that the scale of savings proposed may be reduced when final budget proposals are launched next month.

Cllr Holbrook’s comments reflect an ideological struggle in the Labour group between those that point out Birmingham already spends a very small amount of money on culture, and others arguing that arts must take a distant second place to schools, social care and housing.

The mood of Labour councillors has not been improved by emerging evidence that the running costs of the £188 million Library of Birmingham were woefully under-estimated before the building opened in September 2013.

Business rates were calculated at £1.35 million a year, but the bill turned out to be 1.78 million. Estimates for income from the café and for philanthropic donations turned out to be vastly over-estimated. The Library of Birmingham Development Trust has said there is no likelihood of raising a predicted £1 million a year from donations.

As a result, the library is facing a 40 per cent cut in opening hours and will have to shed 100 staff to save £1.5 million a year. Library director Brian Gambles told the scrutiny committee that the Library of Birmingham, which opened to international acclaim in 2013, is likely to move to reduced opening hours on six, rather than the current seven day a week operation.

Chamberlain Files reported in October that council leader Sir Albert Bore was seeking a “sustainable operating model” for arts and culture in Birmingham, probably in the form of a trust – a proposal supported by BAP.

Sir Albert made it clear that he wished to protect the arts: “My view is we need an arts and culture contribution or the city doesn’t have the value it has built up over the past 30 years or so. The question is, how do we make these cuts whilst sustaining an arts and culture programme for the city?”

BAP, in its response to the white paper, stressed the importance of arts and culture to the ‘Birmingham offer’, making the city an attractive place for businesses to relocate.

“Birmingham’s arts offer is fundamental to making the city attractive to investors, businesses, visitors, students and citizens. Birmingham’s most forward moments came when culture was central to the industrial revolution and economic regeneration.

“A world class cultural offer says Birmingham is open – a particularly important statement in 2015 when so many of the city’s primary assets open or reopen for business.”

BAP has proposed setting up a new body to oversee cultural provision, provisionally called the Birmingham Arts Trust, and hopes the council will kick off the new organisation in 2016 with a substantial cash lump sum. The trust would have the city council, Arts Council England and BAP as the core members as well as other organisations.

A key role for the trust would be to investigate fundraising methods other than relying on the council. However, BAP hopes the council will limit the level of cuts to arts and culture to no more than 10-15 per cent of the current budget, rather than the planned 37 per cent. It is looking at the idea, proposed by the council, of a ‘cultural pound’ where the local authority would commit to a certain level of spending on arts and culture every year.

BAP strategic director Andy Howell, a former deputy leader of the city council, told a scrutiny committee that arts and cultural organisations were major players in the Birmingham economy.

He warned: “If you are looking at a 37 per cent cut across the board you are going to have a big impact on the big players, the orchestras and theatres and so on. If you take 37 per cent out of the Rep’s budget then you really do have a massive challenge.”

Organisations represented by BAP include CBSO, Birmingham Royal Ballet, the Hippodrome and Rep theatres as well as community arts organisations like the Drum and mac Birmingham.

Mr Howell said: “Between 2015 and 2018 we will probably pull in £50 million from the Arts Council. We will sell one million tickets across our network.

“We are not just talking about a handful of esoteric arts organisations. We are talking about a major sector.

“A 37 per cent reduction in funding by 2018 is going to be extremely challenging and may destabilise some organisations.”

He pointed out that the council spends less than one per cent of its total budget on arts and culture, including libraries and museums – about £13 million a year.

If Birmingham was to spend just one per cent of its budget on arts and culture the total spend would rise from £13 million to £30 million, Mr Howell said.

BAP members receives £7 million a year from the council which will fall below £5 million by 2018. “It is a modest budget that will become even more modest”, Mr Howell added.

There is also uncertainty over the future of Arts Council funding for organisations in Birmingham. Arts Council grants are often dependent on the city council continuing to fund the arts.

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