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The government must value regional arts, not just those in London

After weeks of the arts being called “unviable” by the power players at Westminster, an advert from the government-backed “Cyber First” campaign – depicting a dancer surrounded by the caption “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber (she just doesn’t know that yet). Rethink. Reskill. Reboot” – has only served to pour more salt into the government-inflicted wounds threatening to do serious damage to the UK’s £10bn/year Arts & Culture industries.

This media gaffe has coincided almost exactly with the allocation of the first round of Arts Council England Cultural Recovery Fund grants – totalling an investment of £257m in 1385 venues across England. This money will be a (somewhat last minute) lifeline for many English theatres that were at real financial risk – and this includes the local theatre that provided me with many opportunities as a young actor growing up.

This round of funding allowed for applications of up to £1m – that is to say it was the ideal funding for regional and local venues currently engaged in a fight for survival. However, even a quick glance through the details of how the funding allocation has been done throws up some very real questions about the value placed by the government on this regional and local theatre – the kind that has the potential to reach the greatest number of people up and down the country – as opposed to just the big name companies that get high-paying tourists through the door. A third of the announced funding has been given to 428 London venues, including £996,000 to the London Philharmonia Orchestra and £961,000 to the Young Vic. 

It feels somewhat telling of this Tory government, though, that only three of the theatres receiving over £500,000 in this round of allocations were in the north of England. As a matter of fact, of the 317 Theatres that received funding in this round, only 61 were in the North at all, compared to 172 in London and the South East. In the very marginal West London constituency of Richmond Park (won by the Conservatives by only 45 votes in 2017) the Orange Tree Theatre has received over £770,000 – working out at £4,280 for every seat in the venue.

In Scotland, arts funding is a devolved matter, but of the 348 applications made, it will be interesting to see how, and most importantly to whom, the government’s £15m long-term Culture Organisation and Venue Recovery Fund gets allocated, following on from the much smaller £4.7m Emergency Fund that was released in September. Applications for the Scottish Government’s freelancer ‘hardship fund’ haven’t even opened yet, making this a very long year indeed for the freelance creatives who haven’t worked since March, yet make up the backbone of Scotland’s creative industries.  

After having to fundraise to keep itself afloat over the summer, I won’t pretend I’m not thrilled that the regional theatre that meant so much to me as a child is finally receiving some government help. But I know I’m incredibly lucky to be in that position. The cultural importance of regional and local theatre to the UK arts scene cannot be understated but seems to have been completely missed by this profit-driven Government just because these venues don’t make as much revenue as the big theatres on the West End. But with the future of the arts industry still looking deeply uncertain for both creators and audiences up and down the country, it’s up to the Government to step up and take local theatre seriously, or it risks being lost forever. 

Image: Len Williams via Geograph