Access To The Arts For All

Posted on 18 June 2014

Both the new Culture Secretary Sajid Javid and the Shadow Culture Secretary Harriet Harman have gone on record this week supporting more access to culture by people who are excluded or feel excluded by reasons of financial ability, social background or cultural background. They should also add geography to the list. Funding for Arts & Culture helps these organisations to break down all these challenges.

It is heartening to hear Politicians with huge influence backing arts funding. If cultural organisations around the country have to close because of funding cuts, then that makes it even more difficult for people to access culture. As Sajid Javid rightly says, “If you are not engaged with our cultural life, you’re not engaged with our national life. Too many Britons are culturally disenfranchised.”

It is also funding that allows arts organisations to reduce ticket prices, which is a key factor in encouraging access. In the Belgrade Theatre’s case our funding allows us to subsidise ticket prices by a whopping 60%.

Yet it is many arts and cultural organisations outside the wealthy metropolitan areas that are truly at risk of closure following the 1 July 2014 funding decisions from the Arts Council and the annual budget setting by their local authority. We are the ones who have much less access to sponsorship, raising significant philanthropic gifts or even higher ticket prices in order to offset the extremely harsh cuts that we are dealing with, than – specifically – the key London organisations.

However, on a very positive note, even though I say so myself, the Belgrade does a fantastic job in welcoming a truly diverse audience from Coventry and Warwickshire into our theatres, and onto our community and education programmes. We’ve just completed our end of year figures and so I have the statistics to hand:

• Our audience profile is atypical of a comparable arts organisation, attracting more people from lower socio-economic groupings. 43% of our audience comes from Coventry City Council “priority” postcodes
• 46% of our tickets last financial year were sold as concessions
• The average ticket price paid was £14.90 including VAT
• Our core community & education programmes are free to access, so that finance is not a barrier; and we also target programmes in areas of the city or to specific communities who have not been participating and these tend to be economically disadvantaged or from cultural backgrounds who need particular encouragement to engage. And we have increased participation from these underrepresented communities as a result.
• We’ve also increased access by running paying drama classes at weekends and during school holidays, alongside the funded free programmes
• Audiences have increased to over 164,000 and our turnover to over £5 million (60% of which is earned)

And to respond to another Minister’s comment (this time Ed Vaisey Culture Minister) who described arts organisations outside London that cannot attract philanthropic funds as “pathetic” (source BBC News, 11 June 2014), I have this to say: it is an unfortunate sweeping statement that belies the real difficulties that face arts organisations outside the power house of London and also pays zip tribute to the hard work that is undoubtedly going on around the country as we all toil to encourage philanthropic giving.

That said, the Belgrade is hugely encouraged by the enormous support we have received from philanthropists locally – the biggest increase in gifts last financial year was in small gifts from local donors, people choosing to add £2 or so to their online booking, or responding to our Give the Gift of Theatre Campaign which enabled people in real financial hardship to come to the Panto, join in the Christmas Cheer and to feel like a normal family for a short time, and crucially to feel less excluded from a time of national celebration – and national cultural life.

So Ministers! Credit where credit is due. Those of us in receipt of public funding are indeed using that funding to promote and enable access to the arts and culture, and are offsetting the decline in public funding by earning and raising more so that we can keep on doing this. Giving people all around the country access to arts and culture is so crucial because this is part of our national identity and access is proven to be good for health, for society, for community and for the economy. £1 public investment in arts and culture generates £4 for the local economy – fund us and thereby raise the cash to fund the Nurses too as well as giving everyone around the country real geographical access to arts and culture.