The Future of Arts Centres at a time of Local Authority Cuts

Tracy Cooper, Chief Executive of artsdepot, shares how the venue survived a 100% Local Authority funding cut in 2010 – and why it is now stronger than ever.

As reported in The Stage (12.6.14) Simon Mellor, ACE’s Executive Director recently said ‘Local authority arts cuts are the “major external risk” to both the sustainability of the cultural sector and ACE’s current investment round….in particular larger metropolitan authorities that were planning to decrease or axe their cultural grants were a threat to the industry and ACE’s regularly fund organisations’

artsdepot was one of the first in the country to feel the axe of 100% local authority cuts by London Borough of Barnet in 2010.  We’d only been open 6 years at this point.  By autumn 2012 with further statutory losses and the loss of our main anchor tenant we’d lost a total of 35% of our turnover.

How different a picture from Autumn 2001 when Barnet Council were the initiators of our creation and the first above ground works had begun. The Council Leader described it as “a key prestige project for the borough which will really start to put Barnet on the map” He told the launch party “It’s about having pride in our borough and pride in our residents and wanting to invest in our borough for their benefit”.   Outspoken opponents the Tories picketed our launch and described the project as “Barnet’s own Millennium Dome”!!

Today in 2014 artsdepot is alive & well, open, and still offering great art, nurturing and supporting artists, encouraging future generations to enjoy, learn and create, engaging audiences from across the UK and encouraging participation. We are still enhancing cultural diversity, engaging in our local community at affordable prices, and contributing to the local economy and regeneration of our High Street.   And that is despite the 100% loss of local authority support.

Undoubtedly, 2010/11 was very tough, a period of time when we had to retract our output and go through severe expenditure cuts that affected many individuals, but the cuts also made us rethink our business models and coming out of those heart stopping moments we are leaner but fitter, sustainable, healthier, more robust and finding new aspirational models of working.

These are some of the lessons we have learnt since that loss:

• Be entrepreneurial, be bold:   We welcomed a new partnership with undergraduate dance college London Studio Centre and now have 330 dancers in residence, we asked our longstanding (and in debt) grassroots tenant Community Focus to leave – a very local emotive issue – we said ‘No thank you’ to London Borough of Barnet when they offered us a library within our space without revenue funding, we said farewell to 9 members of artsdepot staff.

• Invest to earn:  Even in our leanest years we invested introducing Spektrix in 2012, a new IT system in 2013, a new website in 2014 and we are now planning a Capital programme to develop a new Creation Space for artists.

• Focus on a new business model: Every member of staff is a fundraiser, an income generator, a networker.  We had our best trading years to date in 2012/13 yet we halved the marketing budget reducing our year into 2 seasons and focused on digital strategies. A redeveloped catering offer turned our catering business around from loss to profit in 12 months and in 2013 LSC offered further capital investment.

• Place your local community at the heart of the organisation: With 75% of our audiences traveling less than 4 miles, our community is key; they are our Ambassadors letting everyone know ‘artsdepot is open’

• Never lose sight of your artistic integrity: we have achieved some of our greatest creative successes within our new business model with 18 commissions in 2012/13 and extensive involvement in national and pan London initiatives that have brought a multitude of benefits social, economic and even political to artsdepot, such as the Mayors Outer London Fund investment

• Hold onto your vision with passion:  achieve sustainability, let success fill your staff and supporters with confidence and watch your arts centre flourish.

And where, you may ask, is London Borough of Barnet in our story today?

It is sad to say that everything I talk about is ‘despite’ not ‘because of’ our local authority.  The past few years the relationship has been tense and mistrustful but I am proud artsdepot is thriving and we can hold our heads up high.  We have never stopped conversing with our borough Officers or Councillors and there is support within the ranks.  The borough remains Conservative led, following recent local elections, and we accept that we will never return to a local authority funding model. So much history has passed between us we will be inextricably linked forever but now in 2014 as we look forward to celebrating our 10th birthday this October the Council does talk positively about artsdepot as the borough’s cultural asset and a new positive dialogue has begun.  And yes they are on our birthday invitation party list!   I hope you will all come and join our celebrations too.

Tracy Cooper, Chief Executive, artsdepot