Cutbacks Special: The Value of Our Culture: a Personal View

Cardiff Council recently announced that it would be withdrawing funding from some of the capital’s most iconic venues in April of this year. These latest casualties, at the end of a long line at the guillotine of local authority cuts has, not surprisingly, stirred much debate around the value we should place on our art and culture.

In a recent report by the Centre for Economics and Business it is claimed that culture contributes 0.4% of GDP compared to a public investment of just 0.1%. The tension behind public funding in all its forms can often be a healthy one – resulting in continued debate around the preservation of our cultural heritage, creative communities, and artforms. However, should the cultural community not be looking to a future where public subsidy is a minority proportion of income rather than a majority?

Theatre – to provide one example – is in revival, with a particular focus (in Wales) on community projects that are taking us back to our theatrical ancestral roots – when touring Jacobean shows would descend upon towns and cities with their unique blend of literature and entertainment. Our current ‘golden age’ of public funding of the arts is possibly coming to an end, and there is a real danger that the arts will turn to heritage as a reason for keeping our various theatre companies and buildings afloat. This urge to protect a rich cultural landscape is, of course, a strong one – however this new period also presents us with a real opportunity to evaluate and justify what it is that the arts does and more importantly what the arts can do for us all.

The arts, in recent years, have reached out to people in localised communities, with many artists and companies working in-depth with young people, our elderly and the prison service. Through such explorations these artists and companies have developed people, and engaged with new modes of work, new cultures and new ideas. These new modes are what we should be creating and celebrating within our communities – yet all too often they are forgotten, as companies, buildings and artists move onto the next project. Yet for me, the richness of this social engagement is what is sustaining much of our culture – keeping it alive, visible and exciting.

Although I am not in support of the dramatic rate of funding cuts made by many local authorities across the UK, we (as artists and arts administrators) have to look at modes of production whereby our resources are valued, made available, and thrive. I am not for one moment suggesting that we should commercialise the entire sector and cease to celebrate the remarkable people and stories that this recent era has brought us – but I believe that an over-reliance on public subsidy has become an unrealistic and unsustainable option for the arts. If it cannot find a way to be less reliant on the dwindling public purse then, unfortunately, there will be yet more casualties.

Our culture should be reflective of our times – past, present and future – and it should be able to explore our relationship to the world, and our place within it. Our arts buildings are often empty, vacant and lifeless. These venues need to be less precious about themselves and diversify their offerings. In recent years, the Cardiff arts scene has seen a significant capital investment, with Chapter Arts Centre, Royal Welsh Collage of Music and Drama and the Sherman Cymru all undergoing multi-million pound refits. Some of these venues have found a role within their geographical communities, others have found themselves disconnected, their resources inaccessible and purposes often unknown.

I am a strong supporter of our cultural sector, am willing for change, and not suggesting that we stop supporting our cultural sector through public money. However, the cultural sector must look at ways of diversifying its income, becoming more meaningful and sensitive to the lives of the wider population, and supportive of its respective geographical communities – such an approach will lead to a fruitful future as yet undreamed.

Michael Salmon is a free-lance Theatre Producer and co-founder of theatre company Waking Exploits.

Illustration by Dean Lewis