Tiffany Jenkins: Byre drama has consequences for all

Protesters outside the Byre Theatre. Picture: Johnston Press
Protesters outside the Byre Theatre. Picture: Johnston Press
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The closure of the St Andrews theatre highlights the ongoing threat to the cultural fabric of our society, writes Tiffany Jenkins

ON Thursday the doors to the Byre Theatre in St Andrews shut. The theatre had entertained the local community since it opened in a cow barn in 1933. More recently, after multiple refurbishments, the Byre grew, hosting local and touring companies, the Youth Theatre, a jazz and a poetry festival. But it struggled financially. A series of difficulties forced it into a speedy liquidation.

The outrage at the loss has been so great that it may yet be saved. Campaigners sprang into action, support was harnessed, and the theatre could re-emerge under the control of Fife’s cultural trust, maybe reopening by the summer. I hope it does.

But regardless of whether it opens again or not the sudden closure of an institution that has brought pleasure to local people for so long requires reflection. What happened? Why does it matter? And what relevance does the plight of this one venue have for the arts throughout the land?

What happened in St Andrews is not an isolated case. The Byre isn’t the first and it won’t be the last boarded-up venue. That is one reason why we should all pay attention to how this drama plays out. In these austere times cuts threaten all sorts of vital services and will continue to do so, unless we take a stand against them.

Across the UK small but serious slices of funding have been taken from the arts, and there is more to come. Newcastle Council is threatening to axe its entire arts budget. Somerset already did so last year. Westminster is making similar noises. If we are not careful, more will follow as further funds will be withheld, or worse. Councils are starting to sell off paintings to raise cash. Bolton sold off seven works of art, including etchings by Picasso, and a painting by John Everett Millais. Leicestershire County Council, as well as Gloucester, has put up parts of their collections for auction.

It is easy to dismiss the dramatic claims from the arts luvvies who always want more money. They talk in theatrical terms of destruction and devastation. But although this can be over the top, they do have a point. It is important to make the case for subsidy in these straightened times. The arts rarely make a profit. Yes, they can bring in revenue through box office, and maybe a few extra pennies with a shop and a café, but the experimental and the new rarely make money. And extra fundraising activities can be a distraction from their core activity.

Why do they require support? The frequent critical formulation is the question that counterposes the arts to hospitals. Surely, the argument goes, hospitals – sick children in particular – are more important in terms of public funding? Which would you choose: art or health?

But this is the wrong question. There will never be enough funds to cure all diseases, and playing health (or whatever else) off against art misses the wider picture, which concerns the sort of society we want to live in. I envisage one that cares not just for our bodies but also our spirits and the mind – which is what the arts nurture.

The arts create a space for reflection and imagination, which we will always need, no matter how rich or poor we are. But it’s also important, essential in fact, to be clear that the arts do no more than that. This relates to the lessons that are to be learned from what happened at the Byre and elsewhere. Serious mistakes were been made in the boom years, when there was a waste of money.

To understand what went wrong, in order to try and put it right, we have to look back at the last ten years, and how the arts were valued and what was asked of them. Writing in the Scottish Review recently, Kenneth Roy made an important point: the flashy and expensive building of the Byre may have brought them to the brink. They spent a whopping £3,385,000 lottery award to build the a new state-of-the-art venue, which was intended to address “the needs of the entire community”. You have to wonder what was wrong with simply putting on good plays for people who want to see them. It’s quite possible that the beautiful space was too big, demanding and distorted their priorities.

The Byre is far from the only organisation to suffer from the venue problem, and an additional role, being put before the art. Over the last decade there was a massive expansion of arts centres, theatres and museums across the country. Quite a few of them failed. Many others barely survive. Not because the public are not interested in the arts; far from it. The new centres foundered because the art inside them was diluted, often a secondary consideration to the nebulous social or economic purpose. For at the same time a lot more was demanded from them. It was thought they could harness the “Bilbao Effect” – when a new art museum transformed an impoverished Spanish city.

Take, for example, the Museum of Popular Culture in Sheffield. It was a £15 million project funded largely by the National Lottery, and stayed open for about one year. It was shunned by visitors, and it’s now the student union bar. But the worst case is The Public. This is an arts centre with “digital technologies at its heart”, apparently. The only problem is there is nothing of significance in it. Yes, there is a space for exhibitions, and a café, but that’s really it. People aren’t stupid; they know it’s not worth their bother. And yet, resting on the shoulders of The Public were the great expectations that it would regenerate the area of West Bromwich in the West Midlands through culture. It didn’t. But it remains propped up and open – just, if infrequently visited, and has cost the Arts Council England over £31m.

Not every arts centre built in the past ten years should stay open. We have to ask less of them, just that they put the art first. That way people will come and the doors will remain open.