Monday, 24 January 2011

Arts funding cuts - where next for the York Literature Festival?

In a recession, arts funding is always seen as a soft option when cutbacks are on the table. It’s not that arts types don’t protest – far from it. It’s more that there’s no easy way for the bean counters to put any quantifiable price tag to the benefit that supporting the arts can bring. Anything that can’t prove its worth to the profit making machine automatically counts as frivolous, not worth spending money on.

It’s a narrow-minded way to conduct cultural policy. The arts have a value that goes far beyond the purely economic. Engagement with culture increases quality of life, boosts health and well-being, improves education, provides disaffected youth with alternatives to anti-social behaviour, and creates and nurtures transferable skills that are essential in the workplace. When you take away provision for such things, you take away a lifeline for many people – and you have to pay the price, indirectly, afterwards.

It is always a pity when a grassroots literary movement bites the dust. That’s exactly what has happened to the York Literature Festival, which will not be going ahead in 2011 despite four successful years as a showcase of the best local and regional literature. York Literature Festival has always been planned and run from within the local community, by a volunteer committee and team of promoters. Despite the inherent challenges of running a Festival staffed by volunteers, it attracted writers of the calibre of Carol Ann Duffy, Kate Atkinson, Jim Crace and Tracy Chevalier over the years.

So why the demise of the Festival?

The first nails started going into the coffin in late 2009, when York City Council formally withdrew the funding that had previously made the Festival possible. The committee were left with no choice but to plan and run a Festival that was entirely self-funding. And they managed it. The 2010 York Literature Festival ran off modest sponsorships from local businesses and generous private donations from groups and individuals. The result was a packed 10-day programme that drew in literary enthusiasts from across the region. But there is only so long a Festival can go on without secure funding to produce programmes and publicity, and to attract big-name writers. The committee could only hold out so long in hope that the funding they needed for the long term would arrive. It never did.

So, for now, the York Literature Festival is no more. In mourning its passing I have to take my hat off to Miles, Fiona, Antonia, Jenny, Rob, Adrienne, Rose and Alan, and the many other local people who willingly gave up their time or donated money to make previous Festivals happen. I might not mind so much if they were just plucky underdogs, defeated by circumstance. But this story illustrates another side of something that’s happening nationally, which is really beginning to trouble me.

On the whole, the arts are resilient in times of recession. Straitened financial circumstances force people into finding new ways to entertain themselves. The Thatcherite recession of the 1980s created a wave of small-scale, local, “do-it-yourself” arts movements. Punk had encouraged the belief that ordinary people could make things happen; Thatcherism forced ordinary people to step up to the challenge. Grassroots art thrived in a way that the establishment couldn’t have predicted – and didn’t altogether like.

There are signs that the same is starting to happen again in the poetry world. Milton Keynes’ Monkey Kettle is leading the way with its triumphant brand of leftfield satire and surrealism. In the north-east, we now have Beautiful Scruffiness. I predict it’s going to be the first of many new, grassroots publications: run by poets, produced on a shoestring but not compromising in production quality, and designed to bring poetry back where it belongs – among the people.

The problem is that there are vested interests even within the liberal arts. And those interests sometimes end up opposing grassroots arts movements, rather than supporting them.

In the corporate mind-set, control is everything. The name, the branding, the “public image”, everything that happens has to be carefully micro-managed to ensure that only the corporate values are reflected. That’s why, to take a purely hypothetical example, you could envisage a situation where a civic authority might refuse a small grant to a grassroots festival and subsequently spend thousands subsidising glossy brochures for a public event (maybe also branded a “Festival”), which turns out to be just a thinly disguised publicity junket for a wealthy local industry. To take another hypothetical example, you might envisage other corporations (and remember, corporations come in all kinds of guises these days, in the public as well as the private sectors) being frustrated at not owning the name and brand identity for a grassroots festival. Instead of supporting, they might want such festivals to fail (or even be planning for it). Where control is not an option, the only alternative is to quash it altogether.

I’m comforted by the knowledge that the grassroots won’t stay silent for long. Where we’re squashed in one place, we will come back even stronger somewhere else. Literature and art will thrive in Britain, whatever the Con-Dems in central government or the stuffed shirts in the councils do.

The great thing about the grassroots is its self-reliance. Local people really can make things happen where they are, with negligible funding. Those corporate interests that sneered at the York Literature Festival because it never was corporate could be in for a shock when the recession axe starts to fall against their interests too. They may well find that they’ve lost the support and goodwill of the community that they need to carry them through the storm.

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