For the last few years working in the arts has been a more unpredictable and stressful endeavour than usual. Cuts to funding at the national and local level are causing massive headaches and losses to local arts provision, touring and a whole lot more.
It was surprising then when George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer and ideologue supreme, during his “Autumn Statement” announced that the government intended to fund a brand new arts building in Manchester to the tune of £78Million.
The announcement was surprising because local projects are not generally of national enough importance to make their way into a speech that, given the up an coming election next year, is about little more than campaigning for votes.
This particular project would turn an unused television studio in Manchester, previously owned by the television channel ITV, into a large scale arts venue and home to the bi-annual arts event the Manchester International Festival.
Reports suggest that the venue will hold anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 people depending on how it’s configured. The Manchester International Festival is funded by Arts Council England as part of their National Portfolio programme to the tune of £729,134 per year.
Manchester City Council say that central government funding will cover “most” of the construction cost of this facility.
Article19 contacted the Shadow Culture Minister Harriet Harman for a comment about this issue. Below are the questions we submitted and the response we received from Ms Harman’s “Chief of Staff”.
“In the Autumn statement the Chancellor announced £78Million of funding for a new culture facility to be operated by Manchester International Festival (The Factory). At present there is no start date for construction, no completion date, no architect and very little in the way of any written rationale for the existence of this project.
I would like to know if Ms Harman supports the funding of this project through central government given the the proposed cost, the complete lack of any explanation, at present, by the Treasury, DCMS, Manchester City Council or the Manchester International Festival about how this project will be paid for over the long term with regard to operation costs.
Does Ms Harman think it is a good idea to fund large scale construction projects when funding to Arts Council England has been drastically cut over the last few years, with no end in sight, and local government cuts have severely limited arts provision at the local and regional level?
If the Labour Party wins next years election will they support this particular project and provide the funding to Manchester City Council to construct this new facility?”
“We are in favour of investing in arts and culture particularly outside London and welcome the many social, economic and regeneration benefits that brings.”
Make of that what you will!
Designing a Funding Problem
When announcements like this are made many people, usually in arts funding administration, immediately seize on the potential positives derived from the presence of something shiny and new and the fact that it’s an arts building and pay little or no attention to the reality.
That reality however is the biggest problem. First and foremost, putting this building in place will cost a monstrous £78Million to accomplish and that does not include additional construction costs. Then there is the slightly sticky issue of paying for it to actually operate as an arts building.
Over the last few years arts funding has fallen off a cliff at local, regional and national level. There is barely enough money in the system right now to cover keeping libraries open, education projects running and touring for those companies that do actually manage to tour.
Just two weeks ago Birmingham City Council announced that its flagship new library would have to open for less hours because of severe budget cuts. That particular project was constructed at a cost of £188Million.
So what the hell is going on with Manchester City Council (cut again by 1.8% like all local councils a few days ago) attempting to open a massive arts building as budgets continue to contract?
Lies, Damn Lies and Obfuscation
At the time of writing there is very little, if any, information to be had about the building itself. Manchester International Festival (MIF) referred us to Manchester City Council if we wanted any actual details.
MIF were somewhat vague when asked why a bi-annual festival needs a building at all and had no idea where the money was coming from to actually run it.
Manchester City Council admitted that there are no actual drawings, designs or pre-visualisations for “The Factory” (as it will be called) at the moment because there is no architect. They also have absolutely no idea how much money it will cost to operate or where that money is coming from.
The Department for Culture Media and Sport, who handle culture spending, had absolutely no idea about anything to do with the Manchester project and referred us to the Treasury. A spokesperson for the DCMS had no idea who’s idea the project was and stated that they wouldn’t tell us even if they did know. When we pointed out that the cat was out of the bag as far as this project was concerned they seemed somewhat befuddled.
Over at HM Treasury things looked even more grim, not for this project but for the country as a whole since the people in charge of the UK’s bank account don’t seem to be capable of operating a functional communications system, never mind a nationwide economy.
First of all we were provided with an email address that refused to accept any emails. We were then given the contact details for a press officer, whom we contacted, just before he left his job and, apparently, didn’t bother to pass on this little tidbit of information before he packed up his stuff and walked out of the building. Numerous phone calls to the Treasury found us caught in a never ending loop with switchboard staff who, evidently, cannot operate a call transfer system.
Almost two weeks later and HM Treasury has provided no answers to some vary basic questions, like where is the money coming from, does this project have cross party support and so on. The last we heard was that our questions were being dealt with by an individual called “Hope”. You couldn’t make this up if you tried.
Arts Council England denied all knowledge of the project and refused to be drawn on whether or not they would provide additional funds to MIF to operate the facility.
This is a very similar situation to the position ACE placed themselves into when they funded the new building for Rambert Dance Company in London. £7Million was provided toward the construction costs while the company itself faces standstill funding for years to come.
The Christmas Present Nobody Needs
It’s all very well for people to get hyped up about projects like this and trot out the pre-rehearsed platitudes about culture funding and investment. But what the arts really need is for somebody, with a brain, to explain where the money is coming from to pay for it.
Where is the money coming from to pay for the staff, the maintenance, the lighting, the heating, the computer systems and the damn window cleaners?
Where is the money coming from to pay for the publicly funded companies to make work for this space and to tour to this space when they are all, no matter what the art-form, facing continuing cuts to already small budgets?
How as a country do we say it’s ok the cut local arts provision funding by 100% in a lot of places and then arrogantly cheer as yet another architectural white elephant eats into the hollow carcass of arts funding in the regions?
Given the paucity of information about “The Factory” it seems clear that the announcement of £78Million in funding is little more than an electioneering bribe aimed at voters in the north.
There has been a huge amount of criticism and several reports highlighting the fact that ACE funding is disproportionately directed towards companies in London while the regions receive table scraps.
The Treasury has, thus far, not commented about whether or not the project has cross party support and will continue if, as seems likely, the current government are shown the door in the elections next May.
It is dispiriting if not infuriating that arts leaders have not and will not condemn this latest idiocy for what it is. Should “The Factory” ever be built scarce resources will be sucked into it for decades to come, long after the current regimes at ACE, The DCMS, The Treasury and Manchester City Council have wandered off into the sunset.
They will leave behind a legacy of bankrupt thinking and bankrupt small and medium arts organisations that will succumb to fiscal reality for no other reason than a few individuals were willing to take a bribe from one of the most reckless and vindictive governments in recent history.
Image courtesy of Snoopy.com