The looming Government cuts to DCMS and therefore Arts Council England have had me thinking about the perceived vitality of the arts. To me there’s no question of culture’s impact on everyday life, but to my Mum (who very rarely visits galleries, attends theatre shows or museums) I sense she’s not even aware of the threat posed to the cultural organisations surrounding her.
How do we engage with the rare attenders like my Mum, and inspire them to help make our case for support when more cuts undoubtedly loom in the future? It feels like this a question which many people in the arts are thinking about, none more so than Arts Council England with their recent films highlighting the role culture plays in day-to-day life.
Increasing the usefulness of our arts organisations and buildings is my first thought. Thinking about how useful we are as a sector has come second nature to me after working with Farnham Maltings for two and a half years. Situated in the quant market town of Farnham, each user of the building has a different relationship to the organisation; perhaps they’re a member of the University course housed in its walls, or they visit once monthly for the market, they could be blood donors or even a beer festival attendee. No two relationships will be the same. And nor will they necessarily relate to the arts output of the organisation.
This isn’t to say that people don’t use the building to engage with the arts, there’s a burgeoning contemporary theatre programme on offer along with plenty of craft activities too. My point here is that people happily use the building on a regular basis, and because of this use it’s become a part of the everyday fabric of the town. If Farnham Maltings came under threat of closure there’d be protests from local people about the loss of an integral community resource. How many other theatres or arts centres could say the same if their doors were set to close permanently?
Of course, some people would protest due to the inconvenience of the driving further for their Pilates class rather than the loss of a national arts organisation, but the fact still remains that the organisation is useful to 1,000s of people – and all of these users have the potential to be converted in arts attendees too.
The next way to develop our perceived vitality would be to change the way we think about the arts and other cultural organisations. By that I mean we should think of the arts as a public service and automatically look to collaborate with other organisations. It should be in our DNA to collaborate and share resources to help better our service to the public whom support us. Although a start, it’s not as simple as opening arts buildings more to local scout groups or fitness classes; it’s big and difficult and means that every person from the upcoming graduates to the current cultural leaders need to embed collaboration in their planning and development. Collaboration focused not just on people like ourselves but with the army, the local chemists and the town market. It will be through the unexpected collaborations that the public will be reminded of our purpose within their community, and through artistic collaboration that we’ll get new ideas to more people not like our regular attendees. If we all did this, concerns around low engagement and arts access could genuinely be changed on a national level. And when the next round of cuts come, more people like my Mum will feel that the arts play a vital role in their lives.
Let us become so intertwined within public life that no one could imagine a world without arts subsidy.