How will Hackney’s arts fare after the election?

Rich Mix - centre for the arts in Hackney. Photo: Frank Boyd, flickr

Rich Mix - centre for the arts in Hackney. Photo: Frank Boyd, flickr

The London Borough of Hackney prides itself on being a centre for new, inspiring, culture and arts events in the capital. The Cultural Policy framework for Hackney written by the council in 2006, illustrates the important role that art plays for the community. With the election looming and public sector cuts imminent, some of the borough’s politicians are concerned that arts funding could be the first thing to go.

The ‘cultural and creative industries’ have replaced manufacturing as the prime industry in Hackney, according to the council. In 2003 the cultural and creative sector employed 9,510 people in 1,520 enterprises with a turnover in excess of 580 million pounds. This is roughly 10% of all employment in Hackney and almost 13% of all businesses.

The Conservatives have been fairly straightforward when it comes to the arts. Ed Vaizey, shadow minister for the arts said, at the National Campaign for the Arts debate in early March, that he could not rule out cuts in the arts, but that, “We can make savings at the back end of the arts, so frontline arts won’t be affected by the cuts”.

Darren Caplan, the Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, would like to see more extreme changes. He said: “In what are tough economic times, high levels of public subsidy cannot be expected – other local businesses are suffering and most people in Hackney would probably agree that the spending priority has to be essential frontline public services”.

So if there is a change in government come May this year and if that change is blue, funding for the arts will certainly not be safe. Margaret Hodge, current Labour Minister for the Arts, denounced Vaizey’s defeatist attitude saying she would fight her corner for the arts. However, in the face of what looks like a significant lack of support for the arts from top Labour politicians it is difficult to see how this can be sustained.

Six years ago elected Labour Mayor Jules Pipe released a document entitled ‘Mind the Gap: Hackney’s Strategy to reduce inequalities and poverty’. The document highlighted how, in comparison with most other London boroughs, which have pockets of deprivation, Hackney’s poverty was spread throughout. It is among the 10% most deprived wards nationally. This has contributed to the emergence of a strong arts scene in Hackney as low-paid artists look for cheap places to live and practise their art. But people in Hackney believe its arts hub, now beginning to be recognised throughout the UK and internationally, can help combat this poverty and deprivation, and feel that this is not being considered in funding reviews.

The council’s cultural policy states how important the arts are in Hackney. Cultural communities promote tolerance, a sense of place, contribute to regeneration, develop children and young people’s creative skills and can reduce crime

Guy Nicholson, Labour councillor for Chatham ward, holds the Cabinet portfolio for Regeneration and the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. He believes that the arts bring with them the expression of the soul: “If a London neighbourhood has no soul then that neighbourhood won’t work. It won’t be long before we have to revisit the design of the entire place” he said.

Nicholson believes that it is the cohesion of the arts community that is the most significant achievement in Hackney over the last few years. “Hackney’s cultural communities have moved from being very insular to much more of a collaborative affair” – which was the intention of the council’s ‘Creative Cluster’ groups, a scheme led by arts practitioners to produce ideas, communicate more and develop an artistic critical mass.

Dom Foster, Liberal Democrat minister for Culture, at the same NCA meeting in early March, said that essentially there was ‘much the same’ about each of the party’s attitude to the arts. But Dave Raval, Liberal Democrat prospective parliamentary candidate MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, believes the arts have suffered recently under Labour,”Strategy for Hackney has pushed artists to the margins, and space for artists to work has not been protected from ‘development’. Hoxton and Shoreditch no longer have affordable space for artists and many have either left the borough or moved to Hackney Wick.”

Nicholson believes “the future of politics is collaboration – the people with politics, politics with the people and the arts are really pushing that”. So is it that the politicians need to take a leaf out of the artistic community’s books and begin to pay attention to the residents themselves?

Caplan sees the art communities much like local businesses – “I’d like to see all local businesses flourish – so I envisage artistic ventures benefiting from the same lower business taxes and cuts in red tape experienced by other local enterprises under a Conservative government”. But Polly Lane, Green candidate MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, believes if Hackney Empire is anything to go by, it is clear that artistic institutions do not work in a capitalist, money-driven environment. She says: “Arts venues are often forced to compete in a capitalist economy, just like any other business.  But when the arts become profit-seeking, or subjected to market forces, venues are often forced to crumble, because the arts should not be run like a business. Once we require them to focus on making money, the point of their talent is lost.”

What is clear from each of the parties is that the arts in Hackney, and indeed throughout the UK are in for a stormy ride in the next few years, which makes it all the more important to continue the debate about funding. The cultural community has clearly made an indelible mark on Hackney, it would be a shame to see this influence decline due to financial restraints.

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