Monday, September 08, 2014

Arts & Culture in Darlington - Fighting Austerity

To London today, to the Guildhall no less, to speak at the New Local Government Network’s conference on the arts in an era of austerity.

Clearly a lot has happened since my blog “took a break” in 2010, with Local Authority finances under enormous pressure from Government cuts. I’ll be blogging separately about how this works separately, but needless to say, arts and culture have taken a battering across the country.

Here in Darlington, we’ve had the very sad closure of the Arts Centre, but also the opening of The Bridge Centre for the Visual Arts, the successful Stage One bid for the Hullaballoon (which will be the only bespoke children’s theatre outside London), and a further bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for the refurbishment of the Civic Theatre, where all our fingers and toes are crossed.

Why were Darlington representatives invited to speak at the conference? In effect, we find that we are are lab rats for the impact of austerity on local government. NGLN is a think-tank with some interesting, not to say provocative views on the future of local government. As its Director said succinctly today, Darlington as a small North East unitary authority is like “the canary in a mineshaft” – what happens to us today will signal the fate of mainstream local government in a few years time.

The arts in Darlington were one of the NLGN case studies in its booklet "On with the Show - Supporting Local Arts and Culture." I was delighted to be speaking alongside John Dean from Darlington for Culture. The case study identified how the two organisations – DBC and DfC - once bitterly opposed over the closure of the Arts Centre – are now working together to secure the best future for the arts in the Borough.

DBC no longer dominates the arts and culture in the town, nor seeks to. It is one crucial player amongst many committed to the cultural sector in the Borough.

The fall-out from the that excruciatingly difficult decision over the Arts Centre has barely abated – John and I joked about not being on each other’s Christmas card list – but as John explained, since then Darlington for Culture has made the decision to move from a campaigning organisation focused on one issue, to a group playing a much broader role, creating festivals and events, supporting artists and generating volunteers for the operation of the arts (whilst still being a "critical friend" of the Council).

Now Darlington for Culture sits alongside others including Teesside University, Darlington College, the Arts Council for England, the Northern Echo and Theatre Hullaballoo with the Council, as founder members of the Creative Darlington Board. It distributes the £100,000 of legacy Council funding each year towards supporting individual artists and their projects; and events such as the Festival of Thrift, which attracted 27.000 people to Lingfield Point last year.

Afterwards, it was good to chat to people from different parts of the country interested in how we're trying to make change for the better in Darlington in terrible financial times.

I ended my bit with the observation that whatever horrors face local government in the next 6 years – and make no mistake for some councils it will be an existential crisis – the changes we have made to arts and culture funding and organsiation will survive whatever the Government can throw at us. It is a durable legacy for the next 20 years +.

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