Jim Beirne in The Economist
Tuesday, July 2, 2013
It's no secret that the United Kingdom as well as many other parts of the world are currently experiencing difficult budget cuts in the arts. The below article from The Economist shines a light on the difficulties of quantifying the economic, social, and aesthetic benefits of the arts, thus explaining why arts budgets are often the most vulnerable. However, ISPA is delighted that member Jim Beirne and his recent entrepreneurial activities are highlighted as a positive example of how some practitioners in the U.K. are handling tough funding cuts. Read the article in full on the Economist website, or reproduced in full below.
Published, June 15th, 2013 in the Economist.
THE view from the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead is
even more magnificent than the gallery itself. From the fifth floor of
the converted grain store, the river Tyne wends away under steel
bridges. On the far bank, the Victorian skyline of Newcastle rises to
the cultural heart of England’s north-eastern capital, the football
stadium. On the near side, the landscape of Gateshead is more diffuse,
lower rise and pitted with areas of wasteland. The BALTIC, which opened
in 2002 and cost £50m (then $75m), towers over it.
In a region otherwise known for closed shipyards, fog, drunkenness and
high unemployment, this makes a powerful statement. Part of a big
splurge on the arts on Tyneside, which was instigated by a
self-described "philistine” local Labour councillor, the gallery is also
a symbol of Britain’s bygone days of plenty. The splurge began with the
unveiling of the Angel of the North, a giant public sculpture by Antony
Gormley, in 1998. Over the next decade more than £350m was sunk into
new and established arts venues, such as the BALTIC and the neighbouring
Sage Gateshead concert hall, which resembles a giant silver slug.
Most of the cash came from the lottery, Westminster and the European
Union: for Gateshead council, it was effectively free money. "We decided
to enter the world of bidding,” recalls its current leader, Mick Henry.
The second, more elegant, reason for the spending was a fashionable
belief in the power of art to fuel urban regeneration, as seen in
another depressed former dockland, Bilbao, following the opening of its
Guggenheim gallery in 1997. The result is that Tyneside, one of
Britain’s smallest, poorest and most isolated conurbations, has some of
the finest arts infrastructure in the country.
This makes it a good lens through which to view the issue of arts
funding, which is proving to be one of the thorniest in the government’s
spending review, due to be announced on June 26th. The Treasury has
asked the Department for Media, Culture and Sport, along with other
unprotected ministries, to suggest draft plans for a 10% cut to its
budget. Its minister, Maria Miller, is resisting. Her budget, one of the
smallest in Whitehall, has already been slashed by a quarter since
2010; albeit that the shortfall has been mitigated by increased lottery
funding. Further cuts, says Ms Miller, could lead to closures of
galleries or theatres, which would be counterproductive, not least
She rightly points out that the arts are unusually excellent, popular
and profitable in Britain. Whereas the government has historically spent
close to the European average on them—and at least a third less than
its French counterpart—Britons make and participate in art more than
most Europeans. More attend the theatre than sporting events. As a
result, the arts contribute far more to economic growth than they
receive in subsidy. To underline this, Ms Miller describes them as a
"commodity” and "a compelling product”. Such claims are bolstered by a
more nebulous argument, propounded by one of the government’s favourite
economists, Richard Florida, that supporting theatres and museums is a
good way to nurture and attract the sort of talent that powers the
creative industries in which Britain also excels.
This is a decent argument. But it risks trading one sort of special
pleading—art for art’s sake—for another. Tyneside offers a clue to that.
The area is certainly much improved by its spanking new arts venues.
Worn down by all the Westminster talk of hardship and cuts, Bagehot felt
exhilarated by the sight of them. A much-needed counterweight to the
gravitational tug of London, they ooze the confidence and excellence
that Britain needs more of. They are also popular. The BALTIC recently
welcomed its five-millionth visitor and is evidently a source of pride
even for Geordies with little interest in its weird, plasticky exhibits.
A post-it-note board in the fifth-floor viewing gallery, signposted "I
love Baltic because…”, provides a snapshot of local opinion. "It is a
nice romantic day out with my beautiful fiancée,” reads one sticky pink
note. "It shows me lots of pitchers,” reads another.
And yet, on the basis of economics, which is where Ms Miller has chosen
her ground, much arts spending is hard to justify, including in
Tyneside. Members of the local arts lobby claim the annual £20m subsidy
they receive delivers a fourfold return for local businesses. But that
calculation owes a lot to Newcastle’s large student population and
Bacchanalian nightlife. There is also little sign that creative
industries have been drawn to Tyneside. The return on investment in
other cities, such as West Bromwich, where over £60m was squandered on
an unloved modern art gallery, and Sheffield, where £15m went on a
short-lived pop music museum, has been worse. The truth is that the
economic value of art is often as hard to quantify as its social or
aesthetic benefits. That makes it vulnerable to cuts in tough times.
The art of the matter
The best solution is to secure private funding. And here the Tyneside
scene is also rather impressive. Undeterred by the frailty of the local
private sector, arts administrators have pooled expertise on selling
services, developing restaurants, and other money-spinners. Jim Beirne,
boss of the Live Theatre in Newcastle, is negotiating to buy and develop
a neighbouring office block and car park, using a low-interest loan
arranged through Newcastle council. A lute player by training, he shows
almost as much relish for this enterprise as for his wonderful theatre.
A step away, in the centre of the city, is another example of the
creativity that austerity can spark. An empty five-storey office block
has been taken over by a pair of enterprising fine arts graduates and
converted into 70 artists’ studios. The ground floor, once occupied by
the Abbey building society, makes a fine exhibition space. From banking
to art: it is delightfully Bohemian. Though whether the transformation
represents progress or regression, according to Mr Florida’s theory, is