Paul Bristow and representatives from small arts and cultural organizations appeared at City Hall today
Arts Council England has warned City Hall that already hard-hit cultural organizations across London will face new financial challenges this autumn when the next round of funding is announced.
“We need to reallocate funding outside of capital to support tier-up. That’s clear government guidance,” the Council’s director for strategic partnerships, Paul Bristow (pictured), told the London Assembly’s Economic Affairs Committee today.
“That will mean some difficult decisions in the upcoming funding round in October,” he said. “It will clearly limit the potential to develop the cultural sector in London with Arts Council funding. It will create a challenging situation.”
The warning came as the committee heard that grassroots arts groups in the city continue to suffer the effects of the Covid pandemic, alongside new challenges including pressure on the cost of living, rising touring and facility costs, staffing difficulties and skills shortages.
A report to the meeting outlined how London’s “cultural offering” extends well beyond Zone 1. A 2019 City Hall analysis showed that the city was home to 52 LGBT+ nightclubs, 94 grassroots music venues, 263 theaters, and 165 museums and galleries.
The sector was already under pressure before the pandemic, with venues closing and council support declining for nearly a decade, the report said.
Arts Council England’s latest guidance for funding up to 2026 confirmed government instructions to move cash out of the capital and save around £75m from funding for London over the next three years.
“We’re very concerned about the next year or so,” Clara Cullen of the Music Venue Trust, which supports grassroots music venues, told members of the gathering. Viewership remained below pre-pandemic levels while typically short leases expired and bills rose, she said.
Similarly, the Museum of Migration currently operates in a former H&M store in the Lewisham shopping centre. Its director, Aditi Anand, expressed concern about marketing, cadence and unsafe tenancies.
Abdul Shayek, artistic director of long-time Tara Theatre, warned that “we are now faced with ramping up the agenda, which could mean we lose”. He urged the Arts Council not to abandon the sector.
“We know our communities in ways that larger organizations don’t,” he added. Community theater had been able to meet local needs during the pandemic and was winning back audiences. Tara’s forthcoming production with Donmar Warehouse, which explores the fallout from the 1947 Partition of India, is 70 percent sold out before the cast is announced.
“We are speedboats, while the National Theater is an oil tanker,” he said. “But when one of our shows doesn’t do well, we’re in a difficult position. The cultural council must be bold and support risk-taking.”
Venues for folk music are the “A&R department” of the live music industry, as well as key venues for niche audiences, Cullen said. “It all starts at these small venues.”
Lorna Lee, Deputy Director for Culture and Heritage at Waltham Forest Council, the first beneficiary of Sadiq Khan’s London Borough of Culture programme, highlighted the ability of small arts organizations to “reflect the diversity of their communities and achieve local participation”.
Anand added that smaller cultural organizations “could be world class in their own right and offer that experience without having to travel to central London”.
Audiences are returning faster in London than in the rest of the country, Bristow said, but conceded the recovery has remained “patchy”. He said the Arts Council remains committed to supporting culture in the capital, with funding under its Priority Places scheme targeting in particular Barking & Dagenham, Brent, Croydon, Enfield and Newham.
Bristow joined other speakers in calling for planning policies that recognize that culture could “revitalize the high street” by helping organizations move into vacant spaces. “I don’t think we’re talking about ‘intermediate benefits’ anymore. We’re seeing a permanent shift,” he said.
Watch the full length of the Economic Committee meeting here.
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