‘We’re barely hanging on’: England’s cultural jewels fall into the red | Arts funding

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The vast majority of England’s biggest subsidised cultural institutions are now operating at a loss, including many internationally renowned venues and arts brands. Financial data gathered for a new national lobbying group called Culture Makes …, started by the Cultural Philanthropy Foundation (CPF), revealed the severe plight of even theatres, galleries and museums that receive regular state grants.

The success of these national gems is usually considered a matter of pride. But end-of-year accounts recently submitted by the 100 organisations that get the most annual funding from Arts Council England show 73 have reported a loss, and this averages at about £300,000. Among them is the Royal Shakespeare Company, which has dipped into the red by a few thousand pounds, despite some stringent budgeting. While not all of these leading venues and cultural attractions are actually in debt, several are. And even though commercial profitability is not always the bottom line – since levels of subsidy will always be required – many have fallen well short of attempts to break even.

“It was very striking how hard it is for even these top institutions, known as the arts council’s National Portfolio organisations, especially as they are already pulling all the available financial levers,” said Caroline McCormick, who chairs the CPF and is organiser of the lobbying drive, which will launch in May with the aim of influencing policy before the next general election. “It is now all so close to the bone.”

The Swan Theatre, Stratford: even the RSC dipped into the red last year. Photograph: Klára Šimonová/Getty Images

McCormick plans to call for protection for British culture by demonstrating its importance, opposing the notion that it is an optional extra, and something to aim for only in better days.

“There is no trickle-down effect for the arts,” she said. “We now know that is a myth. And there are not enough wealthy people making donations, so we cannot rely on arts philanthropy.”

The campaign has already won the support of almost 40 cultural bodies and providers, including the RSC, Edinburgh international festival, Bristol Old Vic, the Women’s Prize Trust, Hastings Contemporary, Theatre Clwyd, Lyric Theatre Belfast, Northern Ballet, Southbank Centre, Picturehouse Cinemas, Talawa Theatre Company, National Museums Liverpool and Shakespeare’s Globe.

“The arts and culture have immense power to transform the lives of all who encounter it,” the RSC’s joint interim executive directors, Sandeep Mahal and Vicky Cheetham told the Observer, adding that at a time of economic uncertainty and funding cuts that were already challenging the wellbeing of people and communities around the country, their company is proud to be joining Culture Makes ….

“This campaign will help to build our collective understanding of the economic, creative, social and physical power that exists within the culture sector in the UK and support the case for growing critical public and private funds to ensure we have a thriving arts and culture sector that is a beacon to the world,” they said.

The wider arts crisis caused by the cost of living increase, in addition to a real-terms reduction of state funding and the complete loss of some local council grants, is already threatening the existence of smaller provincial organisations. But the effect on grander institutions has also become clear, in spite of what most acknowledge is the high value of a thriving British creative sector.

Sydney Thornbury, chief executive of the contemporary gallery the Art House in Wakefield, said she signed up to the campaign because she had seen art create social benefits and build community. “We bring together asylum seekers, refugees and the local community to create art together, but this also creates relationships and community cohesion, and develops new skills and abilities,” she said.

Children enjoy a pottery workshop at the Art House, Wakefield. Photograph: The Art House, Wakefield.

“We have re-animated nearly dead shopping centres, helped grow small creative businesses into renting their own shops, and helped to activate networks of local entrepreneurs – all while also helping to curb antisocial behaviour, raise local civic pride, and make some great art. But are we thriving financially? No. We’re barely hanging on – like everyone else in the arts sector at the moment – because we are seen and funded as ‘just’ arts organisations.”

McCormick, who is also the director of Achates, an arts fundraising consultancy, pointed out that a report into charitable giving last year showed that arts philanthropy had declined to less than 1% of total donations for the first time in more than a decade. And the truth, she said, was that the poorest in society were giving proportionally much more than the rich. The new campaign frames culture as part of the crucial infrastructure of any successful country, let alone one that enjoys Britain’s arts and entertainment track record.

“It is not a question of the arts sitting at the top of the pile as something you get up to,” McCormick added. “It’s not an elite thing, even if some performers are elite. It actually works the other way round. It’s the most basic thing that we need to build things upon. But the arts sector has to find a new language to communicate this. There is a very big job to do, and someone has to do it.”

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