EQUITY MUST FIGHT ARTS CUTS! – call a national march urges West London branch

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Equity members protest in London’s Piccadilly Circus against the Arts funding cuts
Equity members protest in London’s Piccadilly Circus against the Arts funding cuts

AXED children’s theatre workers expressed outrage at Culture Secretary Andrew Burnham’s proclamation last Wednesday that ‘every schoolchild will get five hours of culture a week.’

Two hundred arts organisations, including a number of very highly-valued children’s theatre companies, were given the death-sentence on 1st February, when the Arts Council declared their grant is to be cut from 1st April.

These are precisely the experienced professional organisations that have been providing high-quality ‘culture’ to thousands of schoolchildren for years.

Burnham, who had presided over the ‘massacre of the arts’ announcement just a week earlier, declared last Wednesday: ‘Theatre, film, music, museums and other art forms can be life-changing for young people, broadening their horizons and raising self-confidence and aspirations.

‘There will be practical challenges in delivering this ambitious goal of course, and these pilots will give us the chance to see what those challenges are.

‘But this is a fantastic opportunity for schools to build on what they already do.’

The 200 theatres, companies and arts organisations were informed by Arts Council England that they were being considered for the axe at the end of last year, since when they have waged a high-profile campaign in opposition.

High spots in January were a packed Equity meeting at the Young Vic Theatre in London, where a vote of no confidence in the Arts Council was passed unanimously, and a 1,000-strong march through Norwich led by the local arts organisations facing the axe.

The Equity Council is meeting today at Guild House in Upper St Martin’s Lane in London.

At today’s Equity Council meeting, a motion is being tabled calling for Equity to organise a march through London against the cuts before April 1.

Representatives of some of the axed companies spoke to News Line last week.

Norwich Puppet Theatre administrator Jude Orange told News Line last Friday: ‘Burnham’s announcement leaves me lost for words.

‘After Tie Break Theatre was forced to close when their Arts Council funding was cut previously, now the cutting of our grant leaves the children of Norwich bereft.

‘At the moment our future is uncertain. It’s impossible to say. We’ve had our entire Arts Council grant funding of £60,000 cut from April.

‘But we are ever hopeful that something will happen, that will turn the future round for us.

‘Our outreach work is both in performing and also providing workshops for young children.

‘For many young children we are their first taste of theatre.

‘By going out to schools we perform to children who otherwise might not be fortunate enough to be taken to the theatre.

‘There was a touring theatre company in Norwich called Tie Break Theatre, forced to close when their Arts Council funding was cut.

‘We are a puppet theatre. With both companies gone there will be nothing for schools in Norwich.

‘Now that Tie Break Theatre is no more, if Norwich Puppet Theatre ceases to exist, who will be left to tour to schools, primary schools in particular?

‘Last year 23,000 people saw one of our plays or participated in one of our workshops. These people are going to be bereft.

‘The announcement that each child will have to be offered five hours culture per week, leaves me lost for words.

‘The march against the cuts in Norwich in January was organised as a march not just against cuts in Norwich, but against the Arts Council cuts per se.

‘It was for all those who have had their funding cut, from Norwich and further afield.

‘It was a brilliant march and I do think Equity should organise a march in London to take the fight forward.

‘This is half term week, one of our busiest weeks of the year and we’ve been playing to full houses, with a brilliant festival of German puppet theatre.

‘If we close where will people ever get the opportunity to experience something like this in the future?’

Jennifer Taylor, from Pop-Up Theatre told News Line: ‘We are devastated that our £194,000 Arts Council grant has been withdrawn.’

Michael Dalton, Artistic Director and Co-Founder of Pop-Up, said: ‘This is a tragic mistake based on deeply flawed evidence; it takes away access to the arts from 15,000 young people a year.

‘I have been shocked by the Arts Council’s recent actions, the dishonesty of its disinvestment process and its willingness to publicly smear a company whose work it has supported and promoted for over 20 years.

‘Pop-Up has produced high-quality children’s theatre for over 25 years.’

Jo Salkilld is General Manager of Quicksilver, a children’s theatre company based in Hackney with a programme of national touring theatre work with children.

She said: ‘We’ve just had confirmation that the Arts Council is cutting 52.02 per cent of our funding, amounting to £130,000 a year.

‘We work with children aged three to 11. We tour nationally with plays created specifically for children and we also do education participation workshops for children and inset (in service training) for teachers.

‘We will do a production or workshop for the children and along with it there will be an INSET workshop for the teachers and in that workshop we’ll explain and show the teachers what the production does for the children and we’ll also teach the techniques we use so that when we’ve gone away the teachers can carry on using the work in the classroom.

‘We are seen as leaders in early years work, that’s specifically three to five year olds.

‘Arts Council England have been very specific with their funding cuts. They have basically said there are a lot of companies doing touring work and they are no longer prepared to fund that.

‘We are bewildered as to why they’ve cut our touring programme, although we wouldn’t wish it on anyone else.

‘We don’t just sit kids in the audience and perform for them and expect them just to sit there and watch, it is highly participatory.

‘We still have a very positive attitude but the speed with which it has all been done and the actual process of the funding decisions has been very difficult for everyone.’

Jonathan Petherbridge, Artistic Director, the London Bubble, said: ‘We lost our £430,000 Arts Council grant and we are at the moment in negotiations with them about transitional funding, to help us to find other sources of money.

‘We believe our campaign helped change their mind and made them take a more charitable point of view towards the Bubble.

‘On the culture announcement, it’s good that the government is recognising the role that creativity can play in children’s development.

‘But it must involve giving them time and space to create their own culture rather than the Eurocentric culture that has been handed down.

‘Then it becomes meaningful to them and art moves forward.

‘On the Arts Council’s funding award, they need to look at structures that are more inclusive of artists and audiences. This year’s funding was too much driven by curators.’

Equity members are looking to the Equity Council to take the lead in defending these vital companies by voting today for a march through London before April 1, to which all Equity members, the other TUC trade unions and all arts lovers will be invited, to show that these cuts will not be tolerated.