Features Q&A and Interviews Published 28 July 2015

What Next? “We have to give a more economic argument for arts provision”

Daniel Harrison tells Verity Healey about What Next? Generation and protecting funding for the arts.
Verity Healey

Oscar Wilde once said: “When bankers get together they talk about art. When artists get together, they talk about money.” It’s true now more than ever, as increasingly, to help the Government and the public become more aware about the importance of funding for the arts, artists and arts professionals everywhere are having to brush up on their economics and “engage the public in new and different conversations about how and why the arts are important”. Cuts are the reason. The period from 2011 to 2015 saw a 32% cut in funding to the Arts Council, local council funding was cut by the government by 40%. All in all, 0.3% of public money was given over to the arts, an umbrella which consists of film/theatre/dance/music/fashion/advertising/gaming, an industry which The Warwick Commission estimates is valued at 76.9billion, earns over 8 million an hour and makes up 5% of the British Economy.  The maths doesn’t make sense? What Next? Generation doesn’t think so either.

It’s first thing on Friday morning. Well, around 9am, which is almost first thing in the theatre world, but this and enduring the morning rush-hour and the muggy day, doesn’t seem to quell Daniel Harrison’s enthusiasm when it comes to discussing What Next? Generation, a chapter of What Next? formed in response to the last government’s tory led coalition whose manifesto “cut cut cut” and “austerity austerity austerity” left everyone fearing for the future of the arts industries. But What Next? – a group who meet regularly to  “coalesce around the highest common denominator of ideas and needs that we can act on” – consists of established practitioners at the top of their field, hence the formation of What Next? Generation, a chapter for emerging, younger professionals and artists from places like the Roundhouse, Unicorn Theatre, Young Vic and the Orange Tree amongst others, who felt that younger people needed a voice: not just for them, but from them. Especially as the last government’s education policy, which seems to be carried on into this term, focuses on STEM- Science, Technology, English & Mathematics- in our primary and secondary schools. “No doubt we need people in these areas for example” says Daniel, Taking Part Administration Assistant at the Young Vic and member of What Next? Generation, “but What Next? and What Next? Generation are saying that STEM should be STEAM- Science, Technology, English, Arts & Mathematics. It’s hugely short sighted for the arts not to be included in our education system.”

But what can be done about this to change the government’s mind – especially when, for example, freelance “facilitators” are creeping their way into schools to replace dedicated teachers for music and drama ? “Yes, that needs to change. There needs to be integrity and funding for them in higher education. Considering the general election, we have to shift tactic and we have to give a more economic argument for arts provision rather than just beauty and truth. We are very supportive of the new Culture Secretary John Whittingdale: John is an advocate for arts funding, he got into a Twitter discussion with Simon Stephens about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and it’s really great to see that, because it shows you that we have someone who is supportive of the arts.”

But anyone can have a Twitter conversation; it’s an easy vehicle to curry wide spread instant support and popularity. Can John Whittingdale put any money where his mouth is? “Well, we have a plea for John Whittingdale: please make the case for the arts louder, more often and stronger and especially in the cabinet, because we envisage he will have to have some frank discussions with his colleagues in the Treasury, education and local government.”

But, I can’t help thinking, aren’t we just living in a bubble? Perhaps the arts are just not that important to those who have other priorities, to those who don’t see their lives as being directly or indirectly dependent on the industry or affected by it, those who never visit a theatre, art gallery or a cinema? Is there a danger of a disconnect between the arts world and the public, one wonders? “One criticism the arts community has to overcome and deal with, is that it can be a bit navel-gazing and not really be clear about why art is important” Daniel counters my slightly devil’s advocate provocation. “It’s vital that people realise that art isn’t just about going to the opera house, or the new Alexander McQueen exhibition at the V&A. Basically it boils down to creative choices. If you are doing a doodle on a napkin, if you have a tattoo or body piercing or creating a new playlist on your iPod, that is art, even taking a different journey to work, that is still creativity. That needs to be in the community. It doesn’t help that the communities and local government departments are facing swingeing cuts and that needs to be combated because it is so vital for community cohesion, especially at a time when we’re looking at people being distrustful of each other in communities.”

So what can What Next? Generation do to get across a different message? “WN?G can’t do this by itself and it isn’t trying to do it by itself, but there’s a huge variety of ways that people can contribute to arts and culture without having to fork out £45 for a ticket to see a piece of theatre or whatever. It starts at school, it starts in learning subjects that are presently being cut and undermined. WN?G is making the appeal, in its manifesto, that arts provision is at the heart of primary & secondary schools, and that there is specialised teaching of those subjects and that it is not necessarily graded and but that it is seen  for the value it brings to a wider society. There’s also excellent work being done in rural communities by Farnham Maltings and Fun Palaces or the BBC’s Get Creative campaign- which is really appealing to grass roots organisations such as knitting or book clubs or small bands- it is as simple as that.”

I refer to a recent article by Lyn Gardner entitled “Why every artist should be a community artist” where she comments that “some of today’s most interesting theatre is being made with audiences, not just for them. That’s key to keeping the arts alive”.  Where and how can the public see money being well spent, outside of their local theatre? Are there examples, for instance, where we can directly measure the correlation between art and mental health? “One clear example is the work the Young Vic Taking Part department did last summer, where they carried out a project at Maudsley Hospital, working with young people who were in hospital with mental health issues,” Daniel enthuses. “Over the course of two weeks we created immersive theatre pieces, a banquet where we served their favourite meal, an art installation where they threw paint balloons on a wall, there was a person in a guerrilla suit, they built a tree house – and these things may sound trivial, but during the course of the two weeks we could see a real change in people, we could see joy, a change in attitude and an appreciation of small things. In life, especially in cities, we have a monotony, a necessity to just get by, to just exist and pay our gas, rent and get on the bus- there needs to be a space within that to just thrive as human beings. What separates us from animals is our ability to tell stories and if we lose that ability, then we no longer have the ability to become fully-functioning human beings, we just become cyborgs. It is so vital that we just retain some of our artistic integrity and freedom.”

Isn’t that the thing, I wonder. Listening to Daniel answer, it strikes me that the very effects of art have little to do with money, in fact, they provide a balm may be to some of aggressive capitalism’s worst features. So if we start talking about arts in terms of the economy, aren’t we caught in a loop and encouraging young people to see it as simply a money-making endeavour? Daniel only slightly agrees.

“It would be foolish to ignore this but economy has to be at the forefront of the argument to make it digestible as to why arts is necessary. But if you were to look at Britain’s position in the world, what it is known for, it is known for excellence in arts export. It doesn’t help that the previous administration cut this to the bone – the demise of the UK Film Council for example, which made important films like Slumdog Millionaire, which was hugely successful, and all of a sudden that’s gone. So the economic case needs to be made louder, more often and clearer and those economic statistics need to be used as a trump card. Of course, there needs to be a balance with the holistic argument and the arguments we have been making about community cohesion and mental and physical health. Let’s not underestimate the value of dance classes for instance, especially when child obesity is one of the huge epidemics facing children in this country. There are many incentives as to why the arts should be funded but the financial incentive needs to be made at the head of the argument.”

What else are What Next? Generation doing to spread the message? “We have yet to receive a response from Ed Vaizey, John Whittingdale and Chris Byrant on our manifesto, which also includes a plea to eradicate inequality within arts and culture and an end to unpaid internships. We have written to them but have yet to receive an answer. We also made a video with young people from the Roundhouse, which is a visual response to our manifesto and about why the arts are so important.”

Lastly, are there other governments that do it better? To my slight surprise, Daniel cites Sweden, where state provision is much better. “Uppsala theatre do great work in the local community. They receive huge state funding, there is more artistic integrity and freedom and more out there.  And there is no dictation by a cultural elite to choose what goes on their stages.”

Worried about funding for the arts? Here are some things you can do:

Watch the video above and share it with your local MP.

Set up your own What Next? Generation chapter. Details are here.

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Verity Healey

Verity writes for and contributes to Ministry of Counterculture and is a film facilitator for Bigfoot Arts Education. She is also a published short story writer and filmmaker.

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