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Volunteers make life or death difference to our arts venues

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: April 22, 2013

A full house for a community production at Sterts covered amphitheatre on Bodmin Moor, which survives thanks to its volunteers   PICTURE: JULIA CHALMERS

A full house for a community production at Sterts covered amphitheatre on Bodmin Moor, which survives thanks to its volunteers PICTURE: JULIA CHALMERS

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With the recent closure of Taunton’s much-loved Brewhouse Theatre, Simon Parker assesses the effect of tough government arts cuts on the cultural and social life of communities

"I don't go to the theatre, so why should my taxes pay for others to have fun?" This is the sort of oft-heard comment that allows governments looking to make cuts during hard times to take a knife to the arts.

Cuts to health, defence and education create bad headlines, goes the argument, but the arts can go hang.

The recent closure of Taunton's Brewhouse Theatre left a terrific void for the local community. It may not prove to be the end of the 350-seat venue, but it does point up the precarious situation facing many regional theatres across Cornwall, Devon and Somerset. From the Acorn in Penzance to the Flavel in Dartmouth, Sterts on Bodmin Moor to The Wharf in Tavistock, dozens of small cultural venues perform a balancing act of public grants and private patronage in order to stay afloat.

£11 million of government support has been slashed from this year's arts budget – roughly the cost to the public purse of Margaret Thatcher's funeral. And while we can all be outraged by this apparent anomaly, indignation alone will not lead to better arts provision. It seems the good times, when grants were sloshing around for every conceivable arts project, are over for now, so we just have to get on with it.

And getting on with it, in spite of the hardships, is exactly what some cultural organisations up and down the South West have been doing for years. Starved of local authority or central government funding in the face of cleverer, "cooler" bids, but nevertheless determined to provide a cultural life for their communities, they have soldiered on regardless.

Relying on the goodwill, hard work and boundless generosity of volunteers, these theatres, arts centres, community cinemas and other venues struggle on year after year, providing diverse and high quality programmes of drama, music, dance and film.

Unlike the Brewhouse, which had almost 50 paid staff to support, volunteer-run enterprises, often with charitable status, can enjoy a freedom unknown to grant-funded organisations. And perhaps, in this time of austerity, the "paid-fors" can learn something from the independents.

Take Sterts as an example. Started almost 30 years ago by Ewart and Anne Sturrock, the covered theatre and arts centre on Bodmin Moor has lurched and staggered through periods of extreme financial difficulties – yet has always managed to offer a varied programme of events. Had Sterts been reliant on paid staff and Arts Council grants, it is possible the venue and all it stands for would have folded long ago.

Thankfully, its army of dedicated volunteers has prevented such a scenario, and at its recent AGM, Sterts director Peter Woodward told more than 70 supporters that they were key to the centre's continuing success.

"The 2012 season was undoubtedly successful despite a series of obstacles," he said. "Atrocious weather, a deeply-felt recession and then the Olympics were all concerns. But thanks to the incredible team of people here, we overcame all obstacles.

"When I was talking to a representative from the Arts Council, she returned repeatedly to the role of the volunteers at Sterts and made the point that we were an outstanding example of a thriving community-run organisation."

He added that all the proceeds from last summer's 13,000 ticket sales were ploughed back into the arts in Cornwall through Sterts' mission of "making access to the arts available to all".

Sterts' experience is in stark contrast to that of the Brewhouse, which came to rely more and more on grants for its survival and operation. The Taunton theatre owes its existence to a team of volunteers who fought, campaigned, fundraised and finally built a theatre and arts centre for Taunton and its surrounding community. When the venue opened in 1977 it had just one full-time member of staff and 450 volunteers.

At the time of its closure, it still enjoyed the support of a team of unpaid helpers, but also supported 48 salaried staff. It's a sad fact that in the current economic climate, such wage bills may become unsustainable.

As supporter Terry Wood said: "The closure of the Brewhouse is a tragedy for Taunton – not just for the followers of theatre. It was thought up and brought to life by the amateur groups in Taunton and it should now be given back to them to start from scratch and rebuild it from the ashes."

It is perhaps an uncomfortable reality for those of us who believe culture in all its forms ought to be financially supported from central government taxation that it is perhaps the Sterts model – rather than the Brewhouse's – which will, in the coming years, prove to be the more enduring.

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