Cultural Apartheid…5 min read

Back in the early part of 2011, I attended a conference entitled ‘What Next’ at the Young Vic in London, aimed at raising debate around the proposed cuts to public spending and what implications they would have for the arts in general, and more specifically, to certain sub groups within the sector.

Of all the keynote speakers, the address by none other than Sir Richard Eyre, former artistic director of the National Theatre was the one that chimed the most and in particular, his coining of the phrase ‘cultural apartheid.’

Eyre argued that, if the cuts continued to hit as hard and as deep, then a whole generation of people, typically from areas of limited socio-economic opportunity, would miss out on the benefits of arts engagement and most importantly access to a cultural entitlement that is part of their birthright as British citizens.

Around the same time, Peshkar was waiting to hear about whether or not it had been successful in securing a place in the new Arts Council portfolio of organisations and I found myself as the guest of BBC Radio Manchester’s breakfast show on the morning of the decisions being released.  The presenter asked me for my views of the current round of funding cuts and I quoted Churchill’s response to challenges in the house to cut arts spending during the Second World War to which he replied “then what are we fighting for?”

Thankfully for Peshkar, we did get included in the new portfolio, albeit at a reduction on previous agreements, and as with all other NPO’s, now have a key performance indicator to raise money from non-statutory sources, i.e not from public funding.  Which is all very well, but Peshkar in all its 21 years of existence has never received a penny from any source other than public funds or from income generated from contracts with other agencies, primarily schools and grants such as the Home Office Community Fund.

Now before I get accused of whingeing and complaining, I am not opposed to the idea of private sponsorship.  Far from it in fact, and if I feel that the ethics of an organisation willing to support Peshkar are in line with our own charitable aims and objectives then I’m more than keen to foster a relationship with that interested party.  The problem is that currently the whole arts sector is embarking on the same ambition, most of whom are at the very least, some way larger than our own organisation, and will generally have some form of development team in their operation.

Crucially, however, what gives these organisations their competitive edge in these relationships is the net value of their offer and what that offer will return to the investor in terms of profile.  For example, if you are a internationally focussed festival booking A list talent for your program it is going to be much easier to lever sponsorship from a corporation purely on the basis of the value of that profile and reach.

For organisations such as Peshkar, whose work is targeted at those areas of widespread socio-economic depravation, and as a consequence individuals of low net income, it is harder to make the case.  The fact is that corporations are not focussed on organisations such as us and in the participatory arts sector in general.  A quick look at the Royal Opera House will show you that BP have been supporting them for 24 years and counting and it’s not their only relationship.

I use them as an example of a ‘flagship organisation’ at the very front of the nation’s cultural elite, and I applaud them for their profile and ability to stay at the top of their game.  The reality is though, that this source of funding is not trickling down to the grass roots and wont anytime soon.  Like the young people we support, the funding scenario is like a microcosm of the realities of trickledown economics at the heart of capitalism.  The money doesn’t trickle down.  It never has before, so why should we believe it would now is anyone’s guess.  The likes of the ROH will continue to be able to articulate their offer to the corporate world, making the landscape that extra bit leaner for all those smaller organisations sweating on their financial KPI’s whilst they desperately attempt to maintain their offer to those communities that they serve with their work.

Just last week the Arts Council announced their latest round of restructuring where they will be expected to make efficiency savings of approximately 30{3c0d36e3735f757d9dabb56545ae857d7c08433cd9155c8b4932af97a8dc8594} of their current operation.  Once again a clear indication of an expectation to do more with less, where the money from the treasury is being reduced, while the expectation to deliver at an enhanced level is increased.

At the beginning of October we launched a private giving campaign at Peshkar.  As a bit of PR, I elected to run the Liverpool Marathon on behalf of the company under the banner ‘running for the capital of sub culture in the capital of culture.’  We contacted the press, shared through our social networks and email contacts which we estimate has a reach of approximately 50,000 people which is not bad for a company of two and a half staff.  To date I’ve raised £350.  Clearly I’m going to have run a lot of Marathon’s to get to Royal Opera House levels.

On the subject of ‘cultural apartheid’ my message to Richard Eyre is clear.  It came around a lot quicker than anyone imagined and the future for grass roots arts engagement is uncertain indeed.

What happens next is anyone’s guess, but if we want a nation of children and young people to taste the richness of an arts and cultural offer as part of their everyday lives, then the voices at the grass roots need to be heard and supported by those who have the keys to the sweet shop.