When J.B Priestley visited Stoke-on-Trent on his celebrated ‘English Journey’ in 1934, he tried his hand at ‘throwing’ a vase at the Wedgwood factory in Etruria. It is fair to say he lacked the skills. After watching his vase flop limply back into clay Priestley praised the virtue of the craftsman “doing something that they can do better than anybody else, and they know it.
Here is a supreme triumph of man’s creative thumb”. Cultural campaigners across North Staffordshire will be celebrating this week as Stoke-on-Trent City Council confirmed it is shelving plans to axe the demonstrators at the Gladstone Pottery Museum. For nothing quite beats getting your hands on the clay – and the flower ladies and potters at the Gladstone are fundamental to the museum’s immersive attractions. When so many school-children are at risk of losing a physical connection to the industry which built The Potteries, the out-of-the-classroom education on offer at the Gladstone is more important than ever.
And whilst it was not quite a total victory – the museum will now close on Sundays and Mondays in order to save money – we should celebrate that as the council faces very difficult decisions about funding cuts it affirms its belief in the social and economic value of proper cultural provision. Indeed, that appeal is something we can ill afford to jeopardise.
The Gladstone Pottery Museum has won countless awards – best visitor attraction at the Staffordshire Tourism Awards in November, Heritage Education Trust’s prestigious Sandford Award in October, and Visit England ‘excellent’ status only this month.
What is more, as the Council continues to wrestle with how to ‘brand’ Stoke-on-Trent as a business and cultural destination it is surely essential that those institutions which keep the history and skills alive continue to function. To my mind, having an operational Gladstone Museum is just as important as any entrance to the Chelsea Flower Show. But retaining the cultural provision of the Gladstone – alongside the Potteries Museum, Ford Green Hall, the Etruria Industrial Museum, even the Wedgwood Museum – is proving ever more difficult in the face of government policy so focused on funnelling arts money into London.
A report last year found that total funding from the Arts Council and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport was 15 times higher, per head of population, in London than in the regions. This pattern is reinforced by private philanthropy: according to the charity Arts and Business, 82 per cent of the £660 million donated in 2011-12 went to London-based organisations. And that is even before the Olympics. With the national portfolio overwhelmingly made up of institutions based in London, such measures have left regional museums and galleries scrabbling around for local authority hand-outs or introducing unpopular admissions fees.
And with local authorities themselves having to cope with intense funding pressures, the overall picture is of a local cultural economy withering on the vine. As Jesse Norman, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Hereford, has written: ‘The effect of these trends has been to choke off access to the arts for those in the regions. It’s been estimated that two thirds of the country lives outside the readily affordable range of “national” cultural organisations, and this zone is steadily shrinking as transport costs continue to rise.’
Of course, there are perfectly understandable reasons why London should receive the lion’s share of public funding. The capital city hosts such leading national institutions as the British Museum, the Royal Opera, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Sadler’s Wells. And many of those organisations do a great job in supporting and collaborating with regional arts organisations.
But when these funds are combined with such a concentration of philanthropic giving, England’s cultural inequity is looking startling. Whilst the devolved administrations continue to look after their arts portfolios in Cardiff and Edinburgh, it is the cities and counties of England which are suffering. For me the final indignity is the government’s decision to allocate £30 million of public money to fund a ‘garden bridge’ across the River Thames. This scheme is a lovely idea which I hope goes ahead as a symbol of the capital’s remarkable revival.
But the funds could easily come from the Mayor of London or City hedge funds. Whilst we worry about keeping a potter at the Gladstone, this government can punt £30 million on a London prestige scheme. If the current crisis continues, we will need a new redistributive arts funding settlement. In 1845 the Museums Act allowed the great regional cities of England to bring culture to workers blighted by the horrors of the Industrial Revolution. Nearly 170 years later, a new act could bring a regional arts renaissance to those enduring austerity.