U.K. eyes cuts in theater funding

Proposed grant reductions cause uproar

A surprise round of proposed grant cuts to regularly funded theaters is causing upset throughout the U.K. legit world.

In its spending proposals for 2008-09, the government had told Arts Council England, the funding body for the arts, to budget for cuts of up to 7%. Yet in the sums announced on Oct. 12, the council actually received an unexpected uplift in funds.

Two months later, however, 195 companies received letters announcing either reductions to or total elimination of their grants.

Theater companies and buildings under threat range from the U.K.’s new writing powerhouse the Bush to Exeter’s regional repertory theater the Northcott.

In a meeting called by Equity and held at London’s Young Vic theater on Wednesday, Peter Hewitt, the Arts Council’s outgoing chief executive, was at loggerheads with Christine Payne, Equity’s general secretary.

Hewitt argued that the cuts were balanced by a less widely publicized fact: 75 percent of all organizations the council supports will receive increases that either match or exceed inflation.

Taking into account new companies coming into the funding portfolio, the number of theater organizations in the council’s client list will drop from 233 to 218. Speakers at the often noisy meeting focused on the lack of consultation and transparency in the decisionmaking process. Particularly galling is the haste of the appeals process: Threatened orgs have been given a scant five weeks (including the Christmas/New Year break) to make their case, and are allowed to do so on procedural grounds only.

Josie Rourke, newly appointed a.d. of the Bush, called for a complete halt to the process following her discovery of serious flaws in the council’s procedures.

“Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Arts Council released to us (Tuesday) afternoon internal documents relating to their proposed decision to cut funding of the Bush Theater,” Rourke said. “Those documents contained factual inaccuracies, one of which appears to misrecord our audience attendances by nearly two-thirds.”

Rourke went on to argue that if there were inaccuracies in the Bush documents, mistakes may have been made with other organizations. “A complete audit of all their financial and statistical data should be made public,” she said.

“I am keen to engage with their procedures,” she told Daily Variety, “but if we hadn’t used the Freedom of Information Act, we would be making the wrong response to the council. Everyone needs all the rationale and all the data before they can make a proper appeal.”

Hewitt refuted attacks from clients under threat who didn’t believe in the validity of the appeals procedure. “This is a real process — there will be changes to these proposals.”

The two-week period of appeals begins Jan. 21, ahead of the three-year funding agreements due to start in April.

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