How should Darlington Arts look in the future?
The report’s initial thinking about structures (2.10) appears to concentrate very immediately on a single management organisation. This single focus subsequently leads to important omissions in thinking about the plurality of arts organisations currently in existence in the town.It appears to contradict the key aim of the Working Together group:Exploring new ways of working together across all sectors in Darlington to strengthen the quality and reach of the arts, and contribute to delivering the building solutions and governance and funding arrangements that Darlington needs. Subsequent discussion about third sector organisations as sub-contractors appears to be in relation to existing council-run provision, although this is not clear. The case studies in Appendix 2 are useful in this debate, but it would be much more helpful to have a clear comprehensive picture of the current, pluralist arts offer in Darlington, who provides what, and ideally at what costs. As this is the task of the Creative Darlington group, we would recommend building up from this. Too much is missing from the current report.In a similar vein, more concrete information about the different delivery models currently in existence in Darlington would be useful. The impetus behind this work is financial. It would therefore make sense to establish what kinds of management structures deliver what kind of arts offer and at what cost. In terms of the Arts Centre itself, there is useful information about current council revenue costs. However, cross-departmental charging is unclear, and the catering side is also not well enough documented to make a proper judgement about its financials.The section on visual arts programming (5.2) only considers council-led content, and ignores other exhibition and production programmes (and their ‘curatorial expertise’) in the Arts Centre. The report appears to conclude that refurbishment of the existing buildings would be more economic than a new build. However the fact that new build arts venues are notoriously risky also needs to be emphasised. Recent examples of total failure at huge cost to the public purse are Waygood Gallery in Newcastle and Jubilee Arts in West Bromwich, whilst other venues such as The Arc in Stockton have struggled to contain spiraling revenue costs.The analysis of risk makes sense where diversity of provision is used to ensure that any one failure does not cause systemic collapse. However, the belief in independent organisations who, for example, receive National Portfolio funding, is mis-placed. Unless arts organisations are centrally focussed on delivering an arts offer to the borough, they will always feel free to move to where their interests are best served. And like the banking sector, ultimately the private sector is not risk-free, however well packaged and diversified the portfolio. We believe the least risky model is one in which the local authority plays a supportive and partnering role with those organisations who wish to focus their work primarily on the Darlington arts offer. The key is to find a financial model that is affordable, but delivers an inspiring arts offer to the town. We would also include QE 6th Form in this, and prioritise collaborative work between the college and local artists. The college needs to see the qualitative advantages of being part of an arts centre, and not simply a tenant.To help in this process, we have produced an expanded document outlining proposals for refurbishing one part of the Arts Centre, Blanche Pease. We have also provided further information about our arts programme, and the costs of delivery. This can be viewed here.Darlington Media Group5 June 2011