In the world of the arts, when your building is crumbling and there is a hole in the roof, it doesn’t just rain, it pours.
You have to feel sorry for those running theatre companies. They must have imagined that the job would primarily entail selecting plays that would appeal to their core audience, choosing crew and casts and then delivering a supremely artistic product to delighted theatregoers. These days, they probably spend as much time filling in grant applications and schmoozing with potential sources of finance as thinking about and creating great productions.
Most readers will be familiar with a number of the issues facing theatres including significant loss of income in the early days of the COVID pandemic, cuts to Arts Council Funding and the cost-of-living crisis, which has reduced audience numbers and made it that much harder to find willing sponsors, whether corporate or individual.
It just got worse. Not only is central government unsympathetic to the arts, Arts Council England flaky and money tight elsewhere, but a series of local councils have started cutting all funding to arts bodies, since their own cupboards are bare. Ultimately, almost all of these funding issues come back to government austerity. Councils are significantly worse off as a result of cuts, as are other public bodies such as Arts Council England.
The most recent example of 100% cuts is Suffolk County Council, threatening the future of the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich and other local arts institutions. You could say that they are a touch unlucky, since the Minister for Culture Lucy Frazer’s constituency is in South East Cambridgeshire, just over the county border from Suffolk.
Even so, this is not a problem restricted to one county in eastern England. Many councils are in special measures and, to all intents and purposes, bankrupt. As a result, they will be forced to eliminate almost any element of discretionary expenditure, which will inevitably include arts funding.
You might have thought that this would be a wonderful opportunity for Ms Frazer, to date remarkably silent on this aspect of her brief, to step up and show her mettle by replacing the lost funding from the central pot. If not, why is she getting paid a ministerial salary for representing the arts?
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that closing theatres will have a deleterious effect on local communities. Above and beyond such issues as mental health, individuals working at the theatres will lose their jobs and many self-employed contractors will struggle financially.
The financial impact of theatres on the community is wider. Local pubs and restaurants will also suffer, and in towns like Ipswich, where a proportion of visitors will come in from outside for the day, other businesses will also see their revenues diminished. It therefore makes perfect economic sense to support theatres, which demonstrably bring far more income into their local communities than they cost in external funding.
There is an alternative route, which will not please many in the arts. That is to look for sponsorship from any source. The most obvious will be those selling goods and services that many regard as undesirable. Do we really want to see theatres funded by companies that promote gambling, smoking and alcohol? Is the alternative of multinationals with links to oil and gas or opiates any better?
It might only be a matter of time before we see more theatres boosting branding as part of their names like football stadia. Do we really want the name of an airline proudly proclaimed across a theatre building?
If this is the chosen route, then at least the RSC and the National could have an easy time of it. Since they already boast “Royal” in their names, they could merely supplement that with the name of Royal family that is always eager to arts- or sports-wash and become the “Saudi Royal” National SHAKESPEARE Company.
That might be marginally better than seeing the name of a gambling company on the fronts and backs of garments worn by every actor on stage, but not much.