Monday, 17 December 2012

Culture Cuts

Newcastle's Laing Art Gallery

I've been annoyed for quite some time about the plummeting status of culture and the arts in the UK, and the growing clamour for better funding for sport following the success of the Olympics has further demonstrated the divide between those who think the arts are important, and those who don't. It's become particular apparent in my hometown of Newcastle upon Tyne, where the City Council, in a glorious fit of short-sightedness, have announced their intention to slash the entire culture budget of £2.5 million due to a reduction in funds from central government. I'm well aware that we're living in times of austerity and that cuts must be made across the board, but unfortunately it could be argued that the City Council, currently held by Labour, are using the budget cuts as a political tool. They can cut whatever they see as being unnecessary, and then blame the fiscal ineptitude of the Coalition government for the need to make cuts in the first place. Back in 2008, Newcastle entered their bid to be crowned European Capital of Culture. Liverpool ended up winning, but how on earth could we possibly enter such a competition again, with no culture to speak of? The Council claim that their contributions towards these institutions are the smallest portion of each institution's funding, and that removal of Council support would not result in closure, but that sounds like very cold comfort indeed.

For those of you who have never visited Newcastle, the city isn't all drunken nights out and women wearing no coats in the depths of winter. The city centre boasts two museums, two major art galleries, three theatre spaces, an independent cinema with links to the BFI, and a handful of small comedy venues. The north east as a whole has produced the likes of Sir Ridley Scott, Neil Marshall, Sting, John Martin, Thomas Bewick, and Terry Deary. Charles Dickens enjoyed visiting the city and even J. R. R. Tolkien had links with the area. Surely this qualifies as a rich cultural heritage that is both worthy of preservation and celebration?

Some time ago, the City Council also announced their intention to close ten public libraries around the city - libraries which, it must be remembered, grant access to knowledge to those who perhaps cannot afford to buy piles of books. The Council have argued that no one will live more than 1.5 miles from their nearest library, but for some, even this distance could be too great, making library visits difficult, if not impossible. Besides, libraries do not simply offer books, they also allow users to enjoy IT facilities and internet access. Not everyone has both of these at home, and in a time of increasing digitisation of such things as job applications, banking and even paying your TV license, the only way some people can do these is to use their local library. How can we get people back into work if they can't get online to send a CV? The two sets of budget cuts go hand in hand - after all, this decimation of the cultural budget would affect such institutions as the Great North Museum. Imagine this scenario - a class of primary school pupils visit the museum, and enjoy one of the shows in the planetarium. Several of the pupils express a particular interest in astronomy, their parents locate relevant books in their local libraries, and the seeds are sown for the next generation of Patrick Moores and Brian Coxs. Without the libraries or the museum, how can we expose children to future career paths? Instead, we bombard them with reality TV shows and they grow up wanting to be pop stars or models.

Thankfully I'm not the only one who finds these proposed cuts utterly abhorrent. Northern musical heavyweights Bryan Ferry, Sting, Mark Knopfler and Neil Tennant have penned a letter to the Council in The Guardian, pointing out that without funding to culture and the arts, both avenues become the preserve of the wealthy, and opportunities are denied to the next generation - the next generation which is currently being told it MUST go into sport. The arts and culture provide employment prospects, and things like the film industry even raise the prospect of bringing investment into an area (e.g. Glasgow doubling as Philadelphia, for World War Z).

I leave you with one final thought. Truly one of the most outstanding contributions to the Olympics was the ambitious opening ceremony by Danny Boyle. Without cultural funding, how can we possibly support the next generation of filmmakers, artists, writers, dancers, actors and photographers, those people who will document our culture and society, preserving it for those who will come later?

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