AMBER FILM & PHOTOGRAPHY COLLECTIVE / SIDE GALLERY Response to Newcastle City Council’s Proposed Cuts INTRODUCTION Newcastle City

Council’s grant to Side Gallery is only £15,000, but it is the only revenue funding the gallery receives. Amber operates an extremely efficient and productive exhibition and photographic commissioning programme through the gallery, managing to sustain its high levels of citywide, regional, national and international significance on remarkably low budgets. The grant is small but significant to the survival of the gallery and its ability to deliver a development plan that will increase public access and cultural footfall on Newcastle’s quayside. The council’s budget proposal paper ‘Reduction in Financial Support for the Independent Cultural Sector’ separated funded organisations into larger ‘of national significance who contribute to the City Council’s Working City (through profile, reputation, attraction to tourists and size) and Tackling Inequalities (through outreach, engagement and educational activities)’ and smaller ones who contribute only to ‘Tackling Inequalities and local distinctiveness’. Whilst this may reflect an original Newcastle City funding logic, it has never reflected the reality of Amber/Side Gallery’s cultural position. Side Gallery is as nationally significant as any of the funded larger companies. The work which continues to grow out of the group’s production, commissioning, collection and exhibition activity, held in the Amber film and photography archive, is arguably the most significant body of cultural work to have been achieved in the North East of England over the past 50 years. It is of immense importance to the city and the region. The importance to the UK of the core narrative of this work has been recognised by UNESCO and it would be gratifying to see it recognised by the city council. In developing our thinking for this document, between 8th and 28th January we organised an online audience survey. 323 people responded and we have attached both the statistical information generated by the 9 questions and the personal statements made. We directed our audience to the Council’s arguments. We suggested they might google ‘Newcastle Cuts’ to access the wider debate. The optional statements people made (267) justifying their description of the proposed cuts as either Fair (0.6%), Reasonable (3.4%), Unfair (27.2%) or Dangerous (68.7%) are specifically intended as contributions to Newcastle’s Let’s Talk consultation and should be taken individually as such.

ECONOMIC IMPACT Whilst Amber’s deliberate focus has rarely been fixed on its wider economic impacts, it has played a major role in encouraging/enabling the conservation and regeneration of Newcastle’s Quayside – and, some have argued, facilitating Gateshead’s culture-led regeneration of its quayside. The gallery welcomes approximately 30,000 visitors per year, a figure that it looks double through the development of its access plans. By definition a Side Gallery audience survey will demonstrate cultural provision which engages city centre visitors, but around 90% strongly agreed that arts organisations and cultural venues play a role in persuading them to visit. With 63% of audiences coming from outside the city and a substantial proportion of others coming from outside the centre, this is clearly contributing to a positive economic impact. In their statements, many identify Side Gallery as a key attractor, but it is clear from the breakdown of venues/organisations our audiences would consider visiting (and from many of the personal statements), that the diverse cultural range of the city is important to them. A number argue that this has played a major role in persuading them to live and work in the region. Amber draws over 150,000 unique visitors per year to its online presentations of film and photography, breaking down roughly as 2/3 UK, 1/3 international. Our online activity, our publications (books and DVDs) and our broadcast films continue, regularly, to play key roles in attracting other television and film production companies to working in Newcastle and the wider region. We know this, because we are, so often, drawn into advising the different producers, directors and researchers. The city tends to benefit economically, wherever the North East location may be. Clips from our films and photographs from our collection are used regularly in broadcasts and publications which have the effect of promoting interest in the city and the wider region, both in this country and internationally. The value of Amber’s stewardship of the Battery Stairs and the complex of buildings either side of them has been recognised by the city council. Quite apart from the attraction of the gallery, the preserved integrity of the medieval stairs and C19th warehouse buildings itself draws thousands of visitors each year. The number of photographs, taken by visitors daily and in many cases undoubtedly spread on their informal networks, will contribute enormously to the promotion of the city. Amber has contributed its creative, organisational and collection resources to developing, sustaining and enhancing a number of festivals, curated events and major projects on Tyneside, from Reinventing the City and SummerTyne Americana to its planned involvement in the Festival of the North East in June 2013. It has


helped or worked in creative collaboration with Newcastle Gateshead Initiative, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, Newcastle Libraries, Northern Stage, Live Theatre, Newcastle University, The Sage Gateshead, Baltic, The Lit & Phil, The Mining Institute, Newcastle University, Northumbria University and Sunderland University. It has helped many small, community-based organisations and groups. The skills and resources it has brought to these collaborations have often been a central element in their success; the imagery it has brought has often played a major role in their promotion. We do not have the resources to commission an economic impact analysis, but Newcastle’s annual grant, whilst it has been deeply valued, has never reflected a true sense of Amber/Side’s value to the city. The grant may be small, but it is important in many ways. Withdrawal will threaten Amber’s ability to develop further its disproportionately positive impact on the economic life of the city. It would represent a threat to Side Gallery’s survival. CULTURAL IMPACT Amber’s production and commissioning work has been rooted in a documentary engagement with working class and marginalised communities in the North East of England. Side Gallery’s exhibition programme draws on this and on the work of documentary photographers in and with threatened and marginalised communities across the world. It is the only gallery in the UK dedicated to humanist documentary. Its exhibitions celebrate an artistic field that encourages and informs a depth of understanding about the experiences of the region and the world events that are shaping such radical cultural changes on Tyneside. 28% of the gallery’s audience comes from communities categorised as ‘hard-pressed’ or of ‘moderate means’, where the challenges of post-industrial experience and cultural change have often been most severe. Many more may not often travel to the city centre, but have drawn on local exhibitions and screenings, books, DVDs and online presentations. It is difficult to quantify these impacts, but it is clear, for example, from testimonies on the work of Amber member Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen in Byker, both in the 1970s and in the 2000s, that it has, for many, played a significant role in validating, shaping and re-shaping people’s sense of identity. This is not a luxury: both identity and the ability to accommodate change are crucial elements in the health of any community. It is equally important that the rest of the city, society at large and the other 72% of our audience have access to the experiences, cultural lives and histories of marginalised and threatened communities. It would not be difficult to identify the logic of central government cuts as originating in a political and financial elite able to dismiss impacts


which most voters will not see; lives whose stories will be lost. The arts have provided a key element in Newcastle’s and the North East’s post-industrial regeneration strategy since the late 1950s/early 1960s. Again and again in the statements of our audience, Newcastle’s proposed cuts are seen to be damaging a profoundly felt sense of identity associated with cultural activity in the city. In February, Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen has been asked to talk about her Byker work at New York’s International Center of Photography. Her photographs will be exhibited at the L Parker Stephenson Gallery in Madison Avenue. The 1970s and the recent photographs will get profile in the New York press, as they did recently in The Independent, in relation to the recent Photo50 exhibition in London. The last 12 months have seen 3 other international exhibitions and 18 international film screenings. The films and photographs talk about change, placing Newcastle’s and the North East’s experience and navigation of it at the heart of international understandings of what are often shared concerns. Amber’s wider project, documenting the experience of change in the North East over 44 years, has created something unique and valuable. A couple of weeks ago we approached a major archive, supported by international private philanthropy. We were looking for advice on aspects of our access development plans. The advice, persistently offered despite persistent refusal, was simple: Forget the access plans, sell the collection to us. The contribution to independent cultural activity is a very small percentage of Newcastle’s revenue expenditure and Side Gallery’s grant is a tiny part of that very small percentage. Amber itself bears by far the greatest burden of real costs in maintaining and developing something that is extremely valuable to the city, the region, the UK and beyond. Whether in the recent survey of attitudes to Newcastle’s proposed cuts, or in our surveys of general audience attitudes, it is clear that this is appreciated deeply. It is appreciated internationally (even coveted). Amber is not selling its collection to anybody. Our strategy is to widen that appreciation and deepen it still further. These are difficult times for many people in Newcastle. They will undoubtedly get harder. But it is important to recognise that, along with many of the other threatened cultural organisations, what Amber/Side offers, for such a tiny investment, is part of the how the city attempts to negotiate its future, to compete with other cities, to position itself in national and international perceptions. NEWCASTLE’S CASE


When the city’s proposed budget was first outlined, our instinct was to be sympathetic. We know what savage cuts mean and the presented headline figure was truly shocking. We recognise the deliberateness of the government’s attack on the municipal traditions that are one of the most profound legacies of northern industrial culture. We recognise the unfairness with which Newcastle and other, similar local authorities have been made to suffer in the government’s grant redistribution choices. We feel that we have a good and creative relationship with the city and its officers. If there was a concern, it was with the simplistic presentation of the options: accept these cuts or abandon these vulnerable people. Our experience of budgets far smaller than those of the council is that the options are always open to more nuanced and sophisticated approaches. Along with everybody else engaged with the city, we are concerned about the proposed cuts to the libraries, to the museums, to the youth services and all the rest. Our argument, here, has to be about the cuts to the independent cultural sector, but much of it has wider relevance. We haven’t heard anybody argue that the arts should be sacrosanct. Percentages can be presented in different ways, but we recognise that there are real cuts with which to be dealt. The proposed 100% cut to arts organisations, however, reads like something designed with headlines in mind. It is the very completeness of it that encourages suspicion. It is clear from the survey of our audience’s response to the proposals, that these concerns are shared widely. We have not gone through the council’s proposed budget with a fine toothcomb, but others have. Many questions have been raised, but, so far, apart from the admission of a mistake by the city treasurer on inflation projections, to our knowledge, none of them have been satisfactorily addressed. Notable among the questions are the amount set aside for inflation (whichever figure is used as the base) and the planned significant increases in reserves over the three years, but there are others. All of the questioned budget areas represent legitimate ambitions for the council, but some equally represent areas where nuance and sophistication are possible; where the city’s long term interests can be considered, away from the emotionally-charged territory of the council’s initial presentation of the situation. The inflation figure does seem over-cautious to the untutored eye. A case has not been made for increasing reserves. Our resources - and those of other cultural organisations - represent ‘capital’ that delivers real interest to the working city. The small amount of grant aid we receive helps make it possible for us to maintain and increase this capital, to make it work harder for us and, in consequence, for Newcastle. There seems to be a narrowness of understanding in the logics behind these plans. Strategic thinking is harder in difficult times, but


it is all the more necessary. There is a worrying lack of any long term strategy in the proposals – and it is combined with the amputation of one of the city’s powerful strategic arms. The ‘headline grabbing’ nature of the proposals has made the situation worse: they have grabbed headlines. We have been interviewed by the specialist press, the national press, the international press, even BBC Radio Lincolnshire. The story has legs precisely because the arts have become so successfully a part of the Newcastle narrative. The serious damage to the city’s reputation is a matter of concern to all of us, but it also adds to the potential damage of grant withdrawal. Like the Arts Council, the city council is encouraging the organisations it funds to look to philanthropists, trusts and foundations and commercial sponsors. There are a few exceptions, but Amber is open to being funded by most sources. It actively pursues alternative funding. But these headlines make things more difficult for the arts in the city. However we present things, funders become nervous about the tab they are being asked to pick up. They like to associate themselves with positive stories. The council has promoted the idea of a foundation, replacing its arts funding role. We would welcome such a thing, but it would necessarily be a capital intensive project. The proposal has been made, but it feels desperately vague and insubstantial. Our sense is that most people in the arts community are more than happy to contribute time to realistic and meaningful proposals. We, at Amber, certainly are. But we do need to prioritise investments of time that offer, at least, the potential for practical delivery. The council may have good arguments on all of the questions that have been raised. It may even have strategies to deal with the negative media impacts. We value our relationship with the city and will always listen with open minds. We would have valued the chance to hear them before the closure of the consultation period. The lack is troubling and contributes to the increasing narrative damage. If these cuts go ahead, Newcastle will, for years to come, carry the media tag of the city that cut its libraries, that cut its museums, that axed its arts organisations. It doesn’t matter which other local authorities follow suit, Newcastle will be the city that did not fall from grace, but jumped. THE PLANNED IMPLEMENTATION OF THE PROPOSED CUTS As others have argued, the council only has a responsibility to set a budget one year in advance. Newcastle City commends its 3 year budget as a responsible way of dealing with the cuts from central government. As said above and argued elsewhere, however, there are a number of contentious figures and assumptions. The danger of the city’s proposal is that it sets out something that then becomes


inevitable, regardless of the financial picture that emerges. We haven’t identified a line in the proposal that suggests, for example, if inflation is lower than these assumptions by X%, the City Council will pull back from implementing some/all cuts to these services/these organisations. Amber/Side, along with the other smaller arts organisations and some services, are discriminated against in the potential for alteration, because the funding for them will have gone before the predictions have been tested. The smaller organisations represent an extremely small budget figure. It would be fairer to continue funding them at the present low levels through until the end of Year 3, when, if the council can genuinely see no alternative, they can be cut alongside the larger organisations, which even at 25% of current funding will be receiving considerably more than our 100%. At the very least, we should have our funding cut in line with the percentage reductions proposed for the larger organisations. The arts, the youth services, even the libraries have to take their share of such cuts as may be necessary, but we would urge Newcastle City Council to look at its budget again and to look at the flexibilities in its plan. Difficult times call for creative thinking.