Where’s the art in that?

A survey of lottery-funded arts centres finds that half a billion has been blown on 'buzz'.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

The tenth anniversary of the UK National Lottery is a good point to ask where all those billions allocated to ‘good causes’ ended up. A stream of cash, distributed by bodies such as the Arts Council, Big Lottery Fund and Heritage Lottery Fund, has left its mark on everything from schools to community centres, public sculptures to galleries.

One result has been the rise of a new breed of arts centre. We have identified 53 new arts centres (or major extensions of existing centres) funded with lottery money, to a total cost of £471,451,587, nearly half a billion pounds. Some are well known, such as the Lowry Centre in Manchester, the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, Tate Modern in London, and the BALTIC centre in Gateshead. But many have grown up quietly in towns and small cities – the Brindley Arts Centre in Runcorn, Cheshire (population 30,000), the Dovecot Arts Centre in Stockton-on-Tees (population 180,000), the Pyramid Arts Centre in Warrington (population 190,000).

We’re witnessing an expansion of national arts facilities on a par with the nineteenth century, when local philanthropists and businessmen funded art galleries, theatres and concert halls across Britain. But the striking feature of today’s cultural institutions is that they don’t seem to be based on an artistic agenda.

The results of the survey are organised by lottery distribution body – Arts Council Wales, Arts Council England, Arts Council Scotland, Arts Council Northern Ireland,
Big Lottery Fund and Millennium Commission/Heritage Lottery Fund – giving the date of opening and the size of lottery grant for each new centre. There’s a fair geographical spread, covering everywhere from central London to rural Hereford.

Few are exclusively a theatre, gallery or cinema: most are art complexes, comprising a bit of this and a bit of that. Tolbooth Arts Centre in Stirling, for example (lottery grant: £3,100,000), boasts an auditorium, community meeting rooms, studio, rehearsal and recording space, café-bar and restaurant. The Pyramid Arts Centre in Warrington (£2,460,000 grant) has four theatre spaces, studios for artists-in-residence, a technology suite for recording and editing, as well as Warrington’s first café-bar – and offers a whole gamut of facilities, from advice and guidance on arts projects, to networking groups and inset training for teachers.

Many of the centres promote the fact that their spaces are ‘flexible’, to be adapted for a variety of uses – moving walls and seats around to cater for small plays or large conferences. For example, Wiltshire Music Centre (£1,768,024 grant) contains ‘nine flexible spaces suitable for a range of training, meetings, seminars and conferences’ (1).

Many of these centres’ functions bear no relation to arts at all, instead taking on the role of restaurants, hotels or social welfare offices. There are bars that clearly aren’t meant for just popping into after the exhibition or play. The Market Place Theatre and Arts Centre in Armagh (£3,672,452 grant) boasts a café-bar that wouldn’t look out of place in Notting Hill, while the Quay Arts Centre on the Isle of Wight (£1,954,596) promotes its ‘popular café-bar with a reputation for serving some of the best home-cooked food on the island’ (2).

The Galeri Creative Enterprise Centre in Wales (£3,075,436) offers ‘office and workshop space for rent and rooms for hire’ (3), and the Lowry Centre in Manchester (£83,526,000) includes shops, a cinema complex, restaurants and bars (the paintings by LS Lowry are cramped in a low-ceiling gallery at the top of the building). The Afro-Caribbean Millennium Centre (£1,189,090) in Birmingham includes a ‘unique mix of social welfare projects’ as well as its multimedia recording studio (4), while the Burnavon arts centre in Cookstown, Northern Ireland (£1,923,504), includes a tourist information centre, and areas for receptions and private events.

The arts programming also seems to have a something of a pick-and-mix feel about it. Comedy is shown alongside opera, musicals alongside Shakespeare. It seems as if programmers have just gathered tit bits, lacking any institutional agenda to guide their choices. Take the new Wales Millennium Centre, which hosts seven different cultural groups, including the youth organisation Urdd Gobaith Cymru, which ‘provides cultural and sporting activity for 53,000 young people in Wales’; Touch Trust, which offers ‘educational touch and creative movement therapy for children and adults with profound disabilities and autism’; and also the Dance Company of Wales and the Welsh National Opera (5).

If you look at the centres’ missions, a few are wacky – the National Centre for Carnival Arts (£3,000,000) in Luton aims to ‘[disseminate] best practice within the carnival community’ (6), while an arts centre in Cumbria (£1,626,900) seeks to weave art into the fabric of people’s lives, ‘[making] significant moments of their lives – milestones such as birth, commitment to partnerships or burying the dead – truthful, powerful and memorable to them’ (7).

But most of these new arts centres are promoted as open and creative spaces, to hang out and let the juices flow. The aim of North Edinburgh Arts (£1,750,500) is to ‘provide high quality artistic experiences that stimulate expression and dialogue, entertain and free the imagination within a welcoming, open and flexible environment’ (8). The FACT media complex in Liverpool (£4,742,274) says that it ‘believes in the ability of individuals to express themselves creatively’ and aims to ‘champion new and emerging forms of creativity’ (9). Meanwhile, the Riverfront Centre in Newport (£8,495,795) sells itself as a ‘thriving arts centre, full of activities for participation, enjoyment and education. The bar and cafe, helpful staff and relaxing surroundings make it an exciting building to enjoy by day and night’ (10).

Those lottery-funded centres that showcase a particular kind of art, music or theatre are more solid enterprises. Hampstead Theatre seeks to present important new writers and bring the best international artists to London; the National Glass Centre in Sheffield aims to ‘develop and promote excellence in the art and industry of glass’; Tate Modern is based on the Tate Gallery’s collection of modern art. It is an arts centre’s mission that gives it a rationale, a reason to exist. There was a decades-long campaign for a national theatre, for example, with critics, publishers and dramatists arguing the case for such an institution. In 1908, one group stated that the theatre should ‘prevent recent plays of great merit from falling into oblivion’, ‘produce new plays and to further the development of the modern drama’, and ‘produce translations of representative works of foreign drama, ancient and modern’ (11).

Arts institutions founded on an artistic mission tend to have their own unique atmosphere and programming. By contrast, many of today’s new arts centres are generic anywhere-places. Even the architecture looks the same – straight lines of metal and glass, or renovated old industrial buildings such as marketplaces or power stations. Because they all come from the tap of lottery money, rather than the varied campaigns of different artists and public figures, they are made of similar stuff.

New arts centres often aren’t about the arts in particular, dramatic, visual or cinematic; they are about the arts in general, a sense of buzz and energy. In the publicity documents new arts centres are often shown by night, and you get the sense that this is how they are seen: as a beacon emanating light into dark surroundings. It doesn’t matter so much what is on the stage, so long as people are being ‘creative’.

Electrical metaphors proliferate. The Wales Millennium Centre sees itself as ‘a powerhouse for the creators of excellent artistic work’ that will ‘buzz with life all day and night’ (12). Every town and city imagines that it could be the next Bilbao, with its exclusive new centre drawing the eyes of the world. According to Nottingham City Council, its new arts building will ‘enhance Nottingham’s reputation, both nationally and internationally’ (13), while other centres boast of their ‘flagship’ status. The arts, it is thought, will transform regions, improving the local economy and tackling social divisions.

All this heady rhetoric makes for plans prone to flop. Talk about energy and creativity sells in PR circles; whether it sells to the punters is another matter. Lottery-funded arts centres that crashed included the Dovecot Arts Centre, comprising a theatre, mixed exhibition spaces, cinema, café and bars (£6,631,750 grant), which couldn’t generate sufficient income. The National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield (£11,100,000 grant) included four exhibition areas in stainless steel drum-shaped constructions, a café, shop and public square for outdoor gigs – but attracted only 80,000 annual visitors, a fraction of the expected 400,000. Similarly, the Cardiff Centre for Visual Arts (£4,744,084 grant) closed after it attracted only 47,500 visitors in its first year, instead of the 220,000 hoped for (14).

The lottery has taken its fair share of flack for these failures. But whether or not arts centres manage to break even isn’t really the point. They may sell enough Budvars in their café-bar, or rent out their corporate hospitality suites at a good price, but this just makes them a place to hang out or have a business meeting. Art gets left at the margins. Theatre, paintings and concerts become just background music to give the place the right feel, but not deserving of too much attention.

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Topics Politics


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