A model for the future: protecting arts services in the face of austerity cuts

Some months ago I found myself standing in a very noisy corner of North West London.  The sound of tabla drums competed with the sounds of brass and way off in the distance (and not a romantic notion) Scottish Country Dance music stirred old memories. It was a dark and wet night in Hatch End at Harrow Arts Centre and yet I could not fail to be affected by the love the community held for this venue which faced a very uncertain future.

I knew that the Arts Centre was home to 120 community groups and that 18,000 people had recently signed petitions to keep Arts & Heritage Services alive and well in Harrow.  It came to me then, and has lived with me since, that those of us working in the services had a once in a lifetime opportunity to secure a bright and sustainable future for everyone.

For many years I have felt that Arts Centres, Museums, Theatres and Music Services are not best placed being run and owned by local authorities, largely due to austerity cuts but also to ‘the brain drain’ that has seen cultural ‘specialists’ leave local authorities because their talents went largely un-noticed and their creativity channelled into other less creative areas.

I now find myself CEO of the independent trust and charity Cultura London which was set up as the vehicle which will secure that bright future. We are days away from taking on the Arts & Heritage Services from Harrow Council and have a business plan that includes major capital development at the Arts Centre.  These plans include a two-screen independent cinema, restoration and improvement to the Grade II listed Elliott Hall and a brand new 600-seat theatre. Commercial facilities will include bars, restaurants, an art gallery and shop.  Harrow Arts Centre will be a major cultural hub for this part of London and over 200,000 households in the surrounding area. Importantly, the business plan will ensure the Arts Centre’s commitment to a participation programme directed at, and for, the local community that will give them modern facilities to use.  

This £17 million programme of investment is of course not without its challenges.

The cinema will return much needed additional revenue to the Arts Centre but its development does not sit comfortably with the funding agencies; albeit that it will ensure resilience.  The charity has therefore spent time assessing the risk of commercial and other loans to build this first critical stage of the development. Sadly, the project being located in outer London makes it less attractive to the traditional funders; that’s even before you build in the commitment from some funding agencies to ensure money is spent outside of London.  

Perhaps there is a reticence to engage with new delivery models and deliverers, as currently the funding bodies channel their programmes through the local authorities as the natural delivery partner. We must challenge this thinking and encourage the LGA, Arts Council and local authorities to work with us now to ensure the future.

Despite the immediate challenges, as a charity with a trading subsidiary (set up to return surplus to the charity for re-investment) we already feel more in control of our own destiny and are able to drive the success of the project individually and collectively.  As a charity we can make the most of tax breaks, access more funding streams and reduce our running costs.  I also believe we can roll out our model (although not one size fits all) to other local authorities delivering on their behalf, freeing them up to concentrate on areas of statutory responsibility whilst giving ‘everyone, everywhere the opportunity to experience great art and culture’ and continuing to inspire communities.         

Sandra Bruce-Gordon is the Chief Executive of Cultura London. Further information about Cultura London can be found at www.culturalondon.ukThe public can donate to Cultura London's fundraising campaign at www.justgiving.com/cultura-london

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