The bite begins

Is this the first of the thousand cuts that will kill contemporary culture in this country? Certainly it’s a significant and deeply concerning one: Birmingham City Council has decided to withdraw all of its funding for one of the UK’s greatest new music ensembles, the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.

From the BCMG website:

This 100% cut comes as a complete shock and will undoubtedly have a critical impact on our internationally renowned and award-winning performance and learning programme.

We appreciate that the Council is under severe pressures, but a 100% cut to a company which has brought international acclaim to Birmingham and changed the lives of countless young people in the city runs counter to the Council’s desire to promote Birmingham as a modern, dynamic place in which to live and do business.

Ten other companies, mostly working within contemporary arts, are similarly losing all of their funding; larger organisations within the city are facing cuts of up to 23% of their funding. Clearly there’s an issue of prestige involved here, but BCMG – founded by Sir Simon Rattle, no less – is one of the most prestigious ensembles of its kind, and gives Birmingham a international profile in new music year-round that very few places in the UK outside London can boast.

But as Tim Thornton has put it on Twitter:

It’s an ideological coup against the core of everything valuable in civilization, to sustain everything which is rancid and peccant about it

3 thoughts on “The bite begins

  1. I have to say, I’m a bit torn about this. The cuts are obviously draconian and crippling. I can’t imagine anyone praising the cuts, or for that matter even supporting them. The sad thing, I’m afraid, is that the nature of the larger cuts nationwide has made cuts in the arts (and the contemporary arts in particular) entirely predictable and, even more sadly, totally reasonable. The situation that we’ve been presented with is ‘cuts for musicians/dancers/composers/actors/etc.’ (or indeed ‘cuts for universities’) vs. ‘even further cuts for the elderly, the disabled, the unemployed, etc.’.

    This is not at all to say that the BCMG cuts themselves are in any way justified (they’re appalling and deeply sad), but rather to suggest that we step back and look at the way in which the larger argument has been presented (so that, to the average voter, 100% cuts in arts budgets seem absolutely reasonable and indeed inevitable). Sadly, employees at lower levels of government and lower levels of government-funded institutions are mostly now just reacting.

    Speaking as someone in the university sector, I know my colleagues and bosses are all in a bit of a mad scramble to make the best of a bad situation. It’s meant having to cope with shifting priorities and thinking really critically about what we do and who we serve, and having to juggle multiple competing claims. I’m really privileged to work in an institution that strongly values contemporary music (my department has 150+ students studying composition every year, and that doesn’t even include the music technology programme!), but if you had to choose as an upper-level manager to cut the budget for visiting professional performers specializing in contemporary music to perform the works of those students and, say, laying off employees or cutting mental health support programmes or scholarships for low income students or childcare assistance programmes … which would you choose?

    I say this only to say that the Birmingham Council isn’t the bad guy in this story. That their decision had to happen is extraordinarily sad, but it seems clear that they’re only reacting to cuts further up the food chain. At the council level, they’re surely stuck reacting to compelling competing claims for funding with the available funds diminishing.

    If there’s a place for anger, I think probably it needs to be aimed quite a bit higher up the chain than the BCC.

  2. Aaron: What I wonder quite most of the time is how much the opposition on which your argument is based holds true. (‘cuts for musicians/dancers/composers/actors/etc.’ (or indeed ‘cuts for universities’) vs. ‘even further cuts for the elderly, the disabled, the unemployed, etc.’)
    Even in the good times, presented with that opposition almost everyone will go for the person dying in hospital, in need of a little more of the drug etc…
    It seems to me that it’s an opposition useful to those making cuts in convincing people that cuts are reasonable. I would hope that the treasury is using a more involved model. It’s not that I don’t think it’s worthwhile considering. Just that I do think more than two sides to be balanced in funding decisions.

    ‘At the council level, they’re surely stuck reacting to compelling competing claims for funding with the available funds diminishing.’ Even if funds were increasing (as in Australia, where I currently am, where there’s no financial crisis), councils still use the ‘competing claims’ argument not to fund the arts. Similarly, there are other ways to present cuts: I don’t, for example, see a press release from the council protesting their inability to support the BCMG as they make the cuts, confessing to the untenability of their situation, resulting from the decisions made ‘a bit higher up’ (a version of the argument: I blew up one small child to save the whole daycare centre and now it’s for the justice system to decide my punishment…).
    My point is that I am wondering what conditions need to exist such that the answer to the arts vs health/unemployment etc… question comes out in favour of the arts? If there is no such condition, then oughtn’t we (ethically speaking) retrain to stop contributing to the illness in society by encouraging funds (tacitly, explicitly) to go to the arts away from the elderly, ill, poor, etc…?

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