Arts funding in the East

Arts funding per head of population in the East of England continues to be one of the lowest in the country. How this has come about is not too difficult to see: the nationally publicised emphasis on London is simply the logical end point of a process that favours the larger scale, building based organization that tends to develop in large urban centres (with the very small number of exceptions: the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Aldeburgh Music for example, so specifically dependent on the individual they represent).

As has been well rehearsed elsewhere East Anglia does not have a truly large scale urban centre, in the manner of a Bristol, Newcastle, or Manchester, and therefore simply does not have the scale of building based arts infrastructure that attracts the top end of arts funding. The approach that has previously been taken to address this issue, namely to create significant new building based infrastructure, has increased the revenue coming into the area (Dance East in Ipswich, First Site in Colchester, UK Carnival Arts Centre Luton), but cannot address the fundamental problem, and arguably risks creating a physical infrastructure that can not be sustained in the long term.

This issue is not confined to the East, but we do provide a very concrete example of the effect, with the same process repeated within the region itself: the vast majority of investment goes into the urban centres, Ipswich, Norwich, Colchester, Cambridge (albeit at a lower level than elsewhere) and significant parts of our region see little or no strategic arts funding at all.

It should be said that the issue does also have an impact in those large urban centres, where smaller, newer, and non building based organisations face similar problems, and for whom the call to bring funds out from London is particularly galling.

This is a complex problem, one that has developed over a significant time frame, and requires careful thought: is the support of large-scale building based arts infrastructure a good investment, and if not what would the alternative look like? If it is appropriate to continue either entirely or in part, with that approach, how do we drive the impact of that investment into the regions without undermining the more fragile independent arts infrastructure already there? (Here for example enters the debate about National Theatre Live, which is undoubtedly stretching the reach of their work, but at the same time potentially risking the financial stability of regional theatres and touring companies as they lose out to the much more risk free option for audiences and promoters. There is no argument that the spread of NT Live is a good thing, but more concerning is the sense in which a strategic investment is being used to generate revenue for commercial cinemas potentially at the expense of regional theatre.)

A fundamental shift in the distribution of strategic arts investment can only happen in relation to a thorough re-examination of what we want to achieve, and asking whether the tight focus  of increasingly limited resources into a high cost, urban, building based organisations is really our best option to achieve it.

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