I’ve been upbraided by one of you for overdoing the entrepreneurial genius of arts organisations in this country and underplaying the bone-headed refusal of the government, particularly, and local authorities as a concomitant, to understand the importance of supporting community arts, and creativity in education. Well, seems to me I’ve been scribbling about little else for the last half dozen years, but there is a current story that covers both, and it’s at least partly in Bristol.
Bristol is a fantastic city for art, of all kinds – Arnolfini, Bristol Old Vic, a city museum and art gallery that made local boy Banksy respectable with a bold exhibition, practically a whole digital film industry and a concert hall that will be of international standard by 2020 despite not being allocated a state-funded symphony orchestra – the nearest is in Bournemouth or Cardiff. It is, honestly, a thrill to be in Bristol these days.
But in February the local authority announced it was going to cut its arts funding by two-thirds because of the savage cuts to its Whitehall imprest. This week some detail was put on that when it was announced the Old Vic – a national treasure that has had the gross carelessness to not be in London – is also going to lose two-thirds of its local authority funding. The Arts Council can’t wade in to the rescue, it hasn’t got the money and its charter conditions mean it wouldn’t be allowed to if it had.
But the local authority is not the villain in this, the purblind Whitehall wonks and (rhyming slang) bankers are. Six years ago Bristol City Council had the sense to sign over Colston Hall, the flawed but best concert hall in southern England, to the specially created Bristol Music Trust, which seems to have assumed some of the social responsibility the council can no longer afford.
The BMC has not only taken on the job of launching a £48m refurb of Colston (which, everyone hopes and expects, will merge in 2020 with a new name that isn’t redolent of the slave trade) with a scheme whose base is accessibility for not only all audiences but all performers too; it has taken on a bigger issue still.
Recognising the vast virgin meadow of talent among the SEND (special education needs and disabilities) and BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) young who not only can’t get music education at school, they can’t move beyond the preliminaries and think about a music career, the BMT has made a working alliance with Sage Gateshead and the Barbican to come up with the blueprint for a national plan. It will see venues, not educational establishments, taking on the training of both teachers and musicians. They have no extra funding for this, but it needs to be done and no-one else is doing it.
I don’t know how they can afford it. No price has been put on the plan, the scheme doesn’t even have a name yet, but it has the paternal nod from the DoE which one can only assume means that while there's no formal funding some bunce will be nodded through surreptitiously so as not the frighten the Whitehall (rhyming slang) bankers. The partners launched it at a Westminster do, graced by a rather sheepish culture minister and a beaming local cellist, Thangam Debbonaire, who also happens to be a local MP, because they felt they needed to establish some kind of national presence with it.
They shouldn’t need to. The missions is simple: “There’s a difference between doing inclusion and being inclusive” says the BMT’s Louise Mitchell – in other words, no-one should be forbidden by the system to make music, as they are now. That should be a government mantra, but once again, arts organisations are taking on the responsibilities abrogated by all levels of government.