But in a time of austerity, broad brush funding cutbacks to grant funding mean that arts organisations have to look at alternative means of financing their activities, or risk an uncertain future.
State of the arts
When hard times hit, arts funding is often one of the first areas to suffer. For decision makers faced with slicing billions off local and central government budgets, cutting back arts funding is politically an easier option than reducing spending on ‘front-line’ services – education, healthcare or policing for instance. It’s not a case of gradual erosion of arts funding either. In some cases it’s more of a landslide. Newcastle City Council has cut arts funding by 50% and Westminster City Council has gone further still, confirming it will cut all arts funding in the London borough by 2014/2015.
It paints a pretty dire picture for the UK’s cultural sector, with many arts organisations dependent to some degree on grant funding. That’s not to say that the arts industry is without significant economic merit in itself. A few household names aside, artists may not be known for making lots of money, but the arts is actually big business. Recently the Arts Council England published its first analysis of the value of arts and culture to the national economy. The report found that the sector has a turnover of £12.8bn and employs on average, 110,600 full-time people in the UK. Also, UNESCO has identified the UK as the world’s largest exporter of cultural goods – bigger than the US, Germany or France.
Work of art
Of course culture’s economic benefits are only part of the story, with the real return to society being far broader. Arts’ contribution towards alleviating the symptoms of exclusion is recognised by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and major arts funding bodies. Maria Miller, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, argues that the arts must make the case for public funding by focusing on the economic – not artistic – value of culture. But at the same time she also emphasises the wider benefits of the arts: “Alongside … social benefits, perhaps because of them, culture is able to deliver things which few other sectors can. It brings our country to life and encourages people to visit our shores; it develops a sense of community”.
Art, for instance, is a powerful driver of urban regeneration. In cities the world over, artists set up shop in run down areas, driven by a need for space to work at affordable rates. Derelict spaces are transformed into studios, galleries and venues, with local micro-economies springing up around them, and the artists themselves and their work adding culture and colour to the area. You could say that the easel can make a surprisingly strong foundation stone for regeneration. But as agents of renewal, artists all too often end up as victims of their own success. As an area’s cultural capital improves, inevitably so do the property prices and rents. Artists are all too often priced out of the community they created, as landlords increase rents to commercial rates.
Breaking this cycle has a simple solution, but one that’s often not easy to achieve. If artists’ organisations can buy their property they benefit from rising prices, rather than being forced out by them. Wasps Studios is a powerful example of what can be done. The charity, which provides affordable studios, currently houses 650 artists and 22 arts organisations at 19 buildings across Scotland. Some, like The Briggait in Glasgow’s Merchant City, have been restored to their former glory following years of neglect. The magnificent building had, except for temporary use, lain empty for the best part of 20 years.
“Without the support of Triodos Bank the Bongo Club wouldn’t exist anymore and it’s now been described by the council as an iconic Edinburgh institution.”
Rob Hoon, manager of the Out of the Blue Arts and Education Trust
Wasps Studios set out to redevelop the building back in 2001 and finally completed the project in late 2009, with a great deal of work going into repairing the building’s historic fabric to make it habitable again. Just across the car park Wasps’ latest development is its first to offer space to the creative industries. Alongside 64 studios for visual artists and makers at the South Block site, there are 25 offices for creative companies, seven for social enterprises working in the cultural sector, as well as shared office space for freelancers. The commercial organisations are charged higher, but still affordable rents, providing a valuable income stream to support Wasps’ charitable aims.
In Edinburgh an artists’ charity has boosted its income from more underground sources. Out of the Blue is arguably best known for its base in the Drill Hall, a building of considerable historical and cultural significance to the Leith community, and a working home to a sizable chunk of the city’s cultural community. Since 1996 Out of the Blue has run the Bongo Club as its performance venue, which has proved to be a source of vital funds. But the venue came under threat last year when the club was served notice on its lease within the University of Edinburgh’s Moray House property in Holyrood Road. A campaign was formed to save the popular venue, with efforts to find them a new home.
With less than three months remaining before its lease expired, the Bongo Club secured a new venue in partnership with the city council utilising the space beneath the city’s central library which is home to the Underbelly venue during the Fringe. Refurbished with grant finance from bodies including Creative Scotland and loan finance from Triodos Bank, the club reopened in its new premises in the spring.
Banking on culture
Securing finance requires a solid proposal, and an enlightened financier that can see the benefits beyond the balance sheet. Rob Hoon, manager of the Out of the Blue Arts and Education Trust, said: “Without the support of Triodos Bank the Bongo Club wouldn’t exist anymore and it’s now been described by the council as an iconic Edinburgh institution. Last year the Bongo Club hosted almost 600 shows and we had about 70,000 people through the door. All of this could easily have disappeared. “As a bank Triodos really understands what the arts sector is about whereas other banks we approached did not. They just didn’t understand the sector in terms of art, in terms of social enterprise, in terms of the fact we were looking to break even financially but also bring social impact.
It’s more about the long term value and partnership with the bank. To actually see things in that way is vital. Without that consideration the funding of the Bongo Club would not have happened.” In developing a more sustainable society, the arts are as important a building block as renewable energy or organic farming. But with funding under pressure, arts organisations will have to be savvy to survive. Those that can develop alternative incomes, and new ways to move away from reliance on grant funding, are set to thrive. As well as protecting their future and yielding economic benefits, they’ll help to drive regeneration and alleviate the symptoms of social exclusion in the process. And ultimately, we all benefit from the richer, more colourful world art gives us.
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