Arts buildings can be beautiful models for community action

12/03/2015 by

The advent of lottery funding in 1994 promised a golden age for new buildings in the arts – a period from which dance in particular benefited. Much-needed rehearsal studios and performance spaces appeared in cities across Britain, and in examples such as the Jerwood Dance House in Ipswich it wasn’t only dance that benefited, but local economic and cultural life.

Yet in austerity times, when cuts in government arts funding have totalled more than £80m, the potential of shiny new buildings has come under closer scrutiny. During the past two years it’s been hard to square the £189m spent on Birmingham’s state-of-the-art library with the fact that UK library services have been decimated and that Birmingham city council is now unable to afford the £10m annual running costs of its new library and is slashing opening hours and limiting acquisitions of new books.

The eagerness shown by the chancellor, George Osborne, and London mayor Boris Johnson to spend £1m on a study to “progress plans” for a new concert hall in London has sat uneasily with other Tory policies in regard to music, specifically the slashing of schools’ music provision and the downgrading of music within the national curriculum .

Osborne and Johnson were responding to Simon Rattle’s appointment as music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, and to his pleas for the capital to acquire a concert hall with a world-class acoustic. Rattle would commit such a hall to a programme of education and community work comparable to all that he’s developed with the Berlin Philharmonic. But the idea of public money being used to fund the running costs, if not the build, of such a venue feels deeply problematic when schoolchildren – the hall’s future audience – are having their access to music reduced.

New buildings can be necessary and inspiring, but must come with a vision of how they can benefit the widest possible spread of performers and audience.

Two years ago, Rambert dance company moved into their new £20m home on London’s South Bank, a building that was paid for by roughly two-thirds private and one-third public money. The company’s former Chiswick base in was defunct – a notice in one studio warned that “jumping” was not permitted “due to structural weakness”. But the company have had to justify the expense and privilege of their new home, and have done so by giving free studio time to community dance classes, offering rehearsal space and mentoring services to their affiliate companies New Movement Collective and the Alexander Whitley Dance Company, and offering studios for rent half-price to other independent companies..

This is fine and honourable on Rambert’s part, but London still has a community of underpaid and underfunded dance artists who struggle to find places to work. Studios in the capital can cost upwards of £25 an hour to rent and many are not available for extended blocks of time. London is thriving as a world capital of dance, but there’s a danger that this may change. As in New York – once a creative playground because of its cheap rents and empty loft spaces – the rising price of property may soon drive the talent away.

One solution has been offered by The Creation Space – a pioneering initiative by the Point in Hampshire that provides subsidised studio space and accommodation. This means that small, city–based companies such as Vincent Dance Theatre or BalletBoyz can stay in the building and have 24/7 access to a studio.

An even more visionary solution is the plan outlined by choreographer Wayne McGregor for the studio complex that he and his company Random will be occupying from 2016. This is part of an arts and commercial campus that’s being created in the former press and broadcasting building at Olympic Park. As with Rambert, McGregor and his dancers will be prime users of their space, but at least one studio will be extensively available to others. And here’s the brilliant thing. Rather than pay rent, dance artists will be asked to work on projects with schools and groups – trading time, energy and skill rather than precious money.

If this clever scheme works, it will be win-win for everybody. It will extend state-of-the-art facilities to the neediest dance sectors; it will embed dance in the local area (taking up the slack of what schools might once have provided), and it will demonstrate that a new arts building can be much so more than a beautifully designed and costly venue. It can be a model for a community in action.