Let’s Hope Oldham Coliseum Survives Levelling Up
Let’s face it, Arts Council England’s attempt to reframe England’s cultural life has come at a price. One of the North’s leading producing theatres is going dark.
The curtain will fall in late March at Oldham Coliseum, one of only 32 regularly producing theatres in England, with its board blaming removal of Arts Council funding for the decision. The theatre is now in consultation with its 20 strong team of full-time staff and extended freelancers.
By way of a reminder, The Coliseum dates to 1885, it had been funded by ACE for decades and had asked for £615,182 a year over the next three-year funding period, totalling £1,845,546. It was one of several arts and culture organisations not to be included in the National Portfolio for 2023-26.
Oldham’s artistic director Chris Lawson, (who also recently became its chief executive) has warned that the venue, which is in a priority area for the government’s Levelling Up fund, may never open its doors again.
The Coliseum says it has been “working hard to find a solution to this reduction in funding” but that “the current financial situation is not sustainable for the season as planned”.
Speaking to The Stage, Lawson said: “They [the artists] understand the climate we operate in and our financial commitment to them remains, as we are determined to be able to protect them and ensure those artists are looked after regardless of whether the work is happening or not.”
Alarmingly, Arts Council England’s grant-in-aid budget of £341m represents a decline in value of between 30% and 50% since 2010. So, in 12 years of Tory government, the arts have staggeringly lost between a third and a half of their real-term income. Bastards. And by cancelling all its shows from March, the Oldham Coliseum has thrown down a challenge to both central and local government.
“These are difficult times, but arts and culture are in the lifeblood of our town and remain very much a part of our Coliseum,” said the thunderstruck leader of Oldham Council, Cllr Amanda Chadderton, who at least appears keen to be part of the ongoing discussions.
She continued: “This will not be the end of Oldham Coliseum. A new theatre is a key part of our regeneration plans for the town centre, and this has not changed.”
But the bigger, unanswered question after this mess is surely: what does it say about us? What does it say about our fractured values? How has ACE and DCMS allowed it to get to this point? On an immediate level, the past week has presented as another way for British theatre and the state to look in decline, thoughtless and chaotic on the world stage, too. So sad and senseless.
We know that a higher spend on the arts (particularly when it is going to deprived communities) can save many times that amount from the budgets of the NHS and other public institutions. Culture is not a burden.
It goes almost without saying then, that this bombshell development reminds us of the precariousness of many theatres (even those with reserves). The grief of the profession has been palpable and the shock loud. Because the truth is that everyone knows that while Oldham Coliseum is one of the first major causalities of ACE’s decision-making, it is unlikely to be the last.
This week the International Monetary Fund predicted the UK would be the worst-performing major economy of the year, and the only one to plunge into recession.
Elsewhere, a recent report published by the House of Lords condemned the government’s approach to the arts, describing it as complacent and at risk of “jeopardising the sector’s commercial potential”.
Before we conclude, the £120m so-called Festival of Brexit ‘Unboxed’ could have funded the Oldham Coliseum for another 135 years. A third of audiences for this appalling waste of money came from viewers watching Countryfile on the BBC. I kid you not, reader.
A multi-layered disaster zone.
An Arts Council England spokesperson said: “We appreciate how difficult it has been for the team at Oldham Coliseum to come to a decision to cancel forthcoming events, and how unsettling this must be for the staff and all those who work with the theatre, as well as how disappointing this is for audiences.”
To which there is only one possible response. No s**t.