On Tuesday 1 September I attended a meeting at Burdall’s Yard in Bath which was billed as a round-table discussion with Ben Howlett MP on the Cultural and Creative Economy in Bath & North East Somerset (B&NES).
The meeting was attended by over 50 people from different Cultural and Creative organisations in Bath.
Full notes from meeting can be found here: Meeting Notes
I have to say I left the meeting feeling very despondent and with very little faith in our Council.
Ben Howlett himself was brilliant. Full of energy, drive, ambition and future vision. I wish I could say the same for his fellow councillors.
We are going to have a real problem in B&NES in the near future and I think certain parts of our Council need a massive shake-up if the arts are to flourish here in Bath.
I was totally uninspired by our Council’s lack of understanding, passion and drive about culture and arts in Bath. It felt like everything was too much hard work for them. There was no vision further than the end of their noses. No inspiration. And not a lot of help either. I can begin to understand why the relationship between the Arts Council and B&NES has become so fraught. It was very clear that they weren’t just on a different page to the majority of people in the room, I think they may have been in an entirely different book altogether.
The question was raised about the need of space in Bath to create artistic work and the potential release of vacant shops as temporary arts spaces. The meeting was told in no uncertain terms that this was difficult and probably not possible because of the amount of paperwork it would generate for the property team. You could feel a ripple of disbelief shimmer across the room. Bristol Council manage it very successfully, in fact they openly encourage the use of vacant shops – so why can’t Bath do the same?
The Councillors also made it very clear that profit and businesses come before arts and culture in Bath. Yes we understand that the Council have to get the best price out of property rents – that’s a given but if you walk around Bath at the moment there is a high amount of empty units just sitting there doing nothing when they could be generating at least some income for the council. As Andy Burden pointed out, if they gave us these disused spaces they would be looked after and income would be generated for Council.
The Cultural & Creative industries generate more income in the South West than normal businesses so therefore if the arts are generating so much money how can it make sense to cut their budgets? No-one seemed to have an answer to this.
Cllr Tim Warren (leader of B&NES) made it very clear that he wasn’t interested in funding small organisations any longer but wanted to focus more on larger scale organisations and work at the farther regions of B&NES. He also said that we would have to rely a lot more heavily on volunteers in the future.
I’m sorry but that really is bollocks and made me quite angry. There are barely enough arts jobs that pay a living wage as it is at the moment without saying that if you want, for example, libraries to stay open then you’ll have to run them yourselves and not get paid for it. It’s a very dangerous and unhealthy culture to get into and really shows how much value the Council puts in us and our skills. Also and more importantly it is actually a lot of the smaller organisations who are carrying out the most vital work, going into communities and running projects that wouldn’t otherwise happen. Without them there will be a massive void that is left unfilled and will have a detrimental effect to people who use these services. It will be the people, the end-users who will ultimately suffer from these types of cuts.
Participants from the floor made some really good points about how other cities are much more advanced than us Culturally. Many of our twin cities in Europe have their own proper concert venues, symphony orchestras etc and we have none of that. These cities that are successful are so because they fully understand and embrace the importance of the Cultural and Creative industries, they understand the Economic benefits of cultural tourism and they embed the arts at the heart of everything that they do.
I think Ben Howlett made a great point. Bath is not a museum. It’s a living evolving thing. Those of us who work in the arts can see this (although admittedly some organisations are still doing things the same way they did the 30 years ago and need to have a long hard look at themselves and change and adapt as well!). Without a singular, joined-up future vision, without being brave and innovative, Bath is never going to move forwards. It’s going to be stuck in its past whilst other areas thrive and flourish and look to the future and embrace it. It’s a World Heritage City. That should be an amazing thing to be and we should be at the forefront of Arts and Culture and unfortunately we are being stunted and held back by our Council and their lack of vision and ambition.
I do have to say that out of all the Council departments I’ve personally found the Arts Development team to be the best, most understanding and most supportive. They have helped me a great deal over the last three years and a lot of the projects I have run would not have happened without that support and those projects have been of benefit to a lot of people in Bath and the surrounding areas.
It seems to me that as ever, if we want Bath to evolve and reach its full potential then it’s going to be down to all of us who are involved with the Cultural and Creative industries to do it ourselves in spite of the Council. And I know there are those of us that will fight tooth and nail to help Bath reach the amazing and outstanding heights that it should be at. It really does not have to be this hard though. The Council just needs a massive shake and a bit of a slap around the face to wake them up to what the rest of us can see so clearly – arts and culture should be at the very heart of our beautiful city. Bath is a vibrant city because of our arts and culture and all of the benefits they bring. Without support and a change in mindset we risk Bath becoming as stale and as lifeless as the Roman skeletons that inhabit the Roman Baths. Bath must not become a graveyard for the arts.
So I ask all of you to keep on producing amazing work, keep on believing in what you do and NEVER stop fighting to make this City the best that it can be. It is OUR city, and it is us that makes it everything it is – not a load of out-of-touch politicians who have spent far too long stuck behind the confines of their desks, slowly building up layers of dust and becoming more like relics of times past that they so love that they never seem to experience the wealth and variety of culture that we have to offer them. The culture that is right on their doorsteps. Perhaps if they experienced more of it they would begin to see it’s importance and relevance in the same way that we do. I know not all of them are the same – we have some amazingly supportive councillors as well and I truly do thank those that support us.
We are going to have a fight on our hands over the next three years, there is no question about it. It’s time for us to join together and unite to make our voices heard. If the Arts Council want a single vision and clear message for the future of Arts and Culture in Bath – then let us give them one, together. We have something the Council seems to lack – creativity, vision, passion and drive. It’s up to us to move this city forwards, together.
I’m ready for action, are you?
This post contains my own personal opinions and in no way represents the views of any of the organisations that I work for or am affiliated with.