State of the arts in the North

Sometimes, in fact mostly, I am like Pollyanna and play “The glad game” which involves thinking of things to be grateful for and optimistic about. “I didn’t get that grant, but at least I still have working corneas” type thing. Psychologists studies show that gratitude and optimism are good for your mental health. That I feel disinclined to do that today is indicated by the fact that I nearly titled this blog “State of the arse”, but feel I don’t want to end up in anal washing web listings. As a writer, a full time performance poet based in the North, I feel annoyed. As a writer who works in schools and the community to involve people in the life enriching activities of expressing themselves creatively, I feel pessimistic. And annoyed.

I read that in addressing the joint Arts Council/Royal Society of the Arts “State of the Arts” conference in London yesterday, the shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt admitted there would be cuts to arts funding if they got in but called for arts organisations to try for more funding and long term support from American style endowments by philanthropists. He also suggested that a better way of developing audiences than targets might be through digitisation- eg like the Royal Opera House getting live performances into 100 cinemas. When questioned by a delegate he added that he thought arts policy should not be arms length and indicated that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport should have a greater role in arts policy than the Arts Council. (Which seemed to render Arts Council Chair Liz Forgan’s words in her closing speech “if you want us to be an arts development agency” somewhat redundant. Sorry Liz, I don’t think the Conservatives do want you to be an arts development agency).

Now, actually, maybe I can play the Glad Game there, because the last part of that triumvirate of ideas could potentially make something happen that I really think should happen. It’s been frustrating to be involved with some fantastic innovations in terms of how writers work in schools say (Run by organisations like New Writing North and Apples and Snakes for example) and to hear bodies like the National Association of Writers in Education, and even people influential in literature policy within the Arts Council, being vague about how they can bring these impacts to the attention of other policymakers (say within the education department) in order to roll out powerful ideas across the country (for example-personal bee in the bonnet-better training for teachers in creative writing or specifically, performance poetry). So, it feels like amazing arts projects happen everyday but the lessons learned from them, and the ways other people could benefit on a much wider scale, just are not harnessed.  Of course, as Chris Gribble has just pointed out via Twitter, the government in direct charge of arts policy could be horrible. Imagine what would have happened under Thatcher. Quite. But-optimistically, will Cameron’s Conservatives want to pander to people’s worst fears of Toryism by, for example, only giving cash to the scribblers of Keatsian odes? And, even if they do, I think the benefits of (concerted, focused, researched use of)  creativity in schools are still quite early in a trajectory that began in the late nineties. Ten more years, Labour government again, and projects come together under Every Child Matters, Every Artist Matters, Every Child an Artist, and we all have a beautiful golden age of free expression and derelict banks used as arts centres…

…Bugger. The optimism has kicked in and I started with the point that gave me most hope. Let me return to the point that made me most annoyed. Philanthropists to make up a shortfall? Great. If you’re doing art near to, or interesting to, somebody with tons of spare cash. Now, I love Channel Four’s “Secret Millionaire”. I most love that bit at the end where the Secret Millionaire has to say “But there’s something I didn’t tell you” and I always worry that a children’s charity will think they’re going to say “I’m a secret paedophile on an experimental release scheme” and then they have the catharsis of the SM saying they’re going to give them a big cheque that will save their charity/home/leg and everybody cries and hugs awkwardly. Occasionally the SM will gift to a volunteering scheme doing good works creatively (“The Warren” youth centre in Hull for example where several thousand quid was given to a music studio and recording equipment). But rarely is it given to particular artistic projects, because sponsoring a ballet doesn’t give your common or garden philanthropist the same high as nurturing some deprived gardeners, and nor should it. Saliently, for the artistic communities of the North- I have NEVER seen one of the Secret Millionaires coming from the North to give money to the North. In the North East we’ve had visits to Easington and Sunderland and Benwell…and people who’d done good and migrated South or started off there in the first place came to live in bare houses with stained mattresses and marvelled. On Facebook, poet James McKay has just speculated on the sort of odes we’d have to write to get philanthropists to stump up. “O John Hall, descendant of ancient Kings”, or more likely as poet Valerie Laws points out, “O John Hall@ancientkings.com”. A reference, non football fans or North Easterners, to Sports Direct MD Mike Ashley’s traumatic tenure at Newcastle United and rebranding of St James stadium “@sportsdirect.com. Still, the very thought has already inspired another North East poet Adam Fish to make a bid for patronage concluding; “And all that I ask for the words that I speak/Is but half of what your players make in a week.”

We did used to have a great philanthropic foundation up here though which gave lots of money to the arts. It seems to have gone now. It was called the Northern Rock foundation. Oh.

Apparently Jeremy Hunt has been to lots of “starry dinner parties” in order to garner support from arts organisations. I haven’t seen him at any starry dinner parties here in the North East. Oh, hang on. I haven’t been to any starry dinner parties in the North East. Well, I did turn down the chance of a curry with a poet on the Quayside the other week. Perhaps Jeremy Hunt would have been there. Or a philanthropist. Or maybe he has been attending such dinner parties via the internet.  Because it’s just the same isn’t it. Having dinner with people via skype. Noshing your caviar and chips by way of the webcam. Just as good as watching opera or theatre on t’web. “Yes, sorry little Johnny, I know you’re absolutely desperate to see Carmen now that you’ve seen that clip on your iPod, but, stop crying, we can’t afford the £105 return train fare to the opera in London, you’ll just have to reconstruct it with your Britney Spears doll and that wind up bull again”.

Ironically after starting this blog I spent the afternoon having a meeting about finding other sources of funding for my one woman show after it was turned down for Arts Council funding. After all we have tons of live literature touring from the North already don’t we? Can’t think why we’d need another to join the tumultuous flood of…none. We will be looking for funding from the very North East philanthropists I have just been positing might not exist.

But, surely there’s business people who see the potential in supporting an individual at a key point in their literature career? I’m sure there are. It’s time to play the Glad Game again. Watch this space.

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2 thoughts on “State of the arts in the North

  1. Great blog post – of course whoever gets in power is going to slash arts funding because we’ve got a financial crisis + a pointless war + the Olympics to fund – and let’s face it politicians can afford to snub the arts – I mean what are we going to do – write rude sonnets (Hmm what rhymes with Jeremy Hunt?) – burn our chapbooks in protest? Oh, I’ve depressed myself even more than I was already.

  2. Hey Kate, I completely agree with what you are saying. A Londoner born and bred I moved to Blackpool and lived there and Preston for 10 years, then moved back to London. Massive difference in funding, oppurtunities and yes attention to the arts. I helped start up blackpools first ever open mic through my university in Blackpool.

    Still an undergrad studying creative writing I’ve seen a lack and have started writing a book on the rise of spoken word across the uk I would be interested in interviewing you if you’re interested?

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