Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Where next for art in Manchester?

The announcement of the fortunate few recipients of the Government’s Arts Council England (ACE) funding scheme is due by the end of March. To put it bluntly, thanks to irresponsible bank management, public money that could have been used as funding for the arts has already been distributed as bankers’ bonuses and to rub salt in the wounds we now live under the rule of a government convinced that a regressive state is the answer. As a result, even those who usually expect funding wait with bated breath. This has affected Manchester groups in differing ways; Ian Pennington spoke to representatives of Mooch N4 Street Art Gallery and Blank Media Collective, two examples of local groups with contrasting responses to the cuts.

To set the scene, a 10-year strategic framework was published under the title of Achieving great art for everyone last November and, as the result of what the Arts Council North West’s spokesperson describes as “major consultation with all those involved or interested in the arts,” Arts Council England is certain that it represents the best option for everyone, particularly given the circumstances of the recession’s playing field.

You’ll be aware of the recent cuts to public spending, I’m sure. Here’s a quick recap on how the ConDem blade fell on the arts: last October the Arts Council England (ACE) announced a 29.6% cut to their budget over the next four years, with 6.9% immediately trimmed from the majority of funds previously announced for 2011/12, and its Chief Exec Alan Davey adding that he expects the ruling to have “a significant impact on the cultural life of this country.” Then in January the inevitable scramble to the top of a thinning money tree was reported by ACE; the consequence is that “approximately 1,340 arts organisations across the country [have] submitted a request to be part of the new portfolio.”

Davey, in something of an understatement, admits via the ACE website that, “demand for funding will outstrip supply.”

Many will be left without the funding that they hope for, although it’s worth remembering that some Manchester arts organisations have been coping well enough without public funding. But that isn’t to say that public spending won’t affect currently non-funded arts projects, at least indirectly.

Certainly, by the time the cuts have filtered down through the hierarchy, smaller independent groups will be left to feed on scraps. Christina Pavlou, former curator at the recently closed Mooch N4 Street Art Gallery and now unemployed, makes the point that lack of funding for other local organisations can have a knock-on effect to those operating in related industries. “The strain can still be felt in the privately funded sector. With Mooch N4 we were completely independently funded, with the income on sales supporting the payment of staff, rent, electricity and publicity. There was a definite drop in sales when the arts cuts were announced, and as a result we did not have the income to stay open. We decided to close rather than change our independence by getting funding and having to follow what the government man says we should do.”

The final point is salient. There are benefits to remaining free from funding in that ticking boxes to adhere to application regulations doesn’t have to clog up your to-do list. However, it does make life more difficult when you’re forced to organise and promote shows under your own steam, something that Pavlou has persevered with under the HldTght moniker.

Of the Arts Council’s expressed funding goals, one seems most relevant given much of their upcoming work could potentially revolve around alternatives to funding: “Goal 3: The arts are sustainable, resilient and innovative.” Reading between the lines, this aim essentially exists to encourage non-funded artistic practice and to diminish reliance upon the Arts Council to make a living in the arts.

This is a mindset that Blank Media Collective has adopted from the outset. Their DIY mentality has led to a gradual and organic growth over the past five years, culminating in a new home on Hulme Street, BLANKSPACE, which was formerly the easa HQ. Talking after their successful launch party at the new gallery space, the Blank Media Collective Director Mark Devereux insists that all is not lost following the cuts. “There are potentially both good and bad implications and time will only tell over how each organisation, gallery, artist and creative reacts and responds. As the Director of a small arts organisation I feel our role is now even more integral in making sure the platform and opportunities are given to emerging artists and nurturing the future artists for the next generation.”

However, the funding question rears its head here as well. Compared with Mooch N4, Blank Media’s attitude differs in the sense that they seek Government funding where possible, but have the foundations in place to maintain their work on a tight budget. To take the next step Devereux admits that Blank Media will require some outside monetary help, “[we are] currently working on a number of funding applications to help the future of the organisation, increasing the support we are able to give to emerging artists. We are well aware this is our next big challenge, however because of our background of implementing projects on shoe-string budgets we know we are able to continue our work even without any external funding.”

The overriding sentiment is one of stoicism; it’s not exactly business as usual when the goalposts have moved and narrowed, but there’s no point crying over a pot of government gold that has long since been spilled into the coffers of flagrantly foolhardy bankers. “If we start worrying about how the cuts will affect this, that and the other it will spurn creativity even further,” offers Devereux. “Groups should work within their means, continue to create platforms and raise the interest in the fantastic work by the artists they support. We should do what we are good at – think outside the box...”

Words: Ian Pennington
Images: Courtesy of Blank Media Collective

[An edited version of the above article appeared earlier this week on the Manchester MULE website]

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