One of the first local councils out of the blocks with their plans for cuts was Darlington, which is not far from where I live in neighbouring Stockton-on-Tees. It’s not a big place – it’s essentially a large market town swollen by its historical importance to the railway industry, and still benefits from being on the mainline from London to the North East and Scotland. It has sustained a receiving house theatre, the Civic, and Darlington Arts Centre, which as well as bringing touring shows and visual arts exhibitions to local people is also home to two important organisations in the National Association of Youth Theatres and Theatre Hullabaloo, who organise the Takeoff festival as part of their work creating theatre for young people. It also plays host to lots of local arts promoters from R&B Club to the Piano Society via the Media Group and others. (Don’t mention Big Society. Just don’t.)
Amongst the (massive) cuts was the withdrawal of all local authority support from the Civic and the Arts Centre. The arts service seems to be envisaged as a one or two person operation working in and from the main leisure centre in the town. (I associate this mainly with the big slides in the swimming pool which I enjoyed muchly when my kids were little, but think might be restricted in their use for site-specific theatre.) This seems madness on a number of levels, whatever the budget challenges Darlington Borough Council faces as a result of Coalition decisions. (It’s a Labour-run authority, and they’ve been quick – one could say eager – to point the finger at the government.)
I have been working with Theatre Hullabaloo recently and have been able to apply my ‘cafe’ test – does this venue feel well-used on a wet Wednesday afternoon? The answer is yes. The programme is varied, but of quality, and has been developed well in recent years. The refurbishment – funded by Arts Council England capital lottery as well as the local authority – has created a welcoming and usable venue, including a specialist studio, heavily used for young people’s theatre.
There is, as you’d imagine, lots of work afoot to try and persuade the authority to amend its plans and to seek a future of some sort for the Arts Centre. You can read about those here and here, and sign a petition here, if so inclined. Lynn Gardner has written about it well for the Guardian - although if that seems a run-down part of town, she really should visit the other side of town, as Arts Centre is surrounded by some lovely streets. (For once, it’s worth reading the comments on Lynn’s article as there are some good points made, and one of the councillors puts the case from Darlington Borough Council’s point of view as well as it can be put.) Lynn Gardner makes a very important point at the end, which I want to support.
When providing capital investment, Arts Council England has gone to lots of trouble to take what’s called a ‘charge’ on the resulting property or facility. This basically means the building can’t be sold or converted into a non-arts purpose without the permission of Arts Council, without the grant or a proportion being given back or, perhaps, alternative facilities being created. These charge agreements took up lots of time and effort for all involved, and are generally a ‘just in case’ provision. Well, now, in Darlington it looks like we might have a case -and who’s to say it’s the last.
Darlington Arts Centre was refurbished fairly recently with over £500,000 of Arts Council capital funding, from the last round – a highly competitive round, in which some other good projects didn’t get funded, or not to the level they might have. I well remember the arguments for it. That money was well used (you can see the studio in use in the video above - done to advertise the breakdancing sessions) but the Centre now faces potential closure as a result of the local authority’s decision. If it was to close the council would face a question of what to do with the building. The ‘charge’ is a real asset in helping them think about that. It is time, therefore, for Arts Council to get the charges out (and the lawyers, yes) and see what sway they might have.
Arts Council England should be absolutely clear that if the building is not used for arts purposes, or equivalent alternative provision made elsewhere in the town, they would require that grant back, and will use all available means to do so. Given the obvious reluctance of the council in making these cuts (yes, I’m a generous soul, I know) that might just make a difference – it is about numbers of £s after all. Almost as importantly it might also influence other local authorities considering taking decisions with similar implications. It makes clear – in hard financial terms - at least some of what is being thrown away with this kind of cut, and may help avoid some closures of facilities built with lottery funds. If you have to give back a large sum to make a short-term saving, it may not stack up. (Campaigners against potential closures elsewhere might also want to see if the letters E, R, D and F cause officials to grimace, as many buildings drew on European funds which may have similar restrictions - meaning alternatives should at least be investigated.)
This approach is not going to be a cure all, but for Arts Council to be a powerful advocate for the arts, it has to play nitty-gritty hard-ball as well as exhorting the virtues of the arts. What can the arts do, as the question seems to go? People need to know they can hire lawyers as well as artists, when they need to.