Hart of the Matter
I hope I am right in thinking that the panic button has been pushed a little early about Haverhill Arts Centre. Inaction, as we have learned in the past, can be fatal, so it is best to be well prepared.
But those in charge at St Edmundsbury Borough Council strike me generally as reasonable people, and I find it difficult to imagine they would contemplate something so unreasonable as to axe the arts centre’s grant altogether.
They may consider a reduction, which would still be damaging, but might allow Haverhill Town Council to make up the shortfall without the resultant council tax increase becoming ‘excessive’.
To take away the grant at the time the council is opening a new venue in Bury St Edmunds at a capital cost which amounts to around 100 years of Haverhill Arts Centre grants – let alone what it will cost to actually run - would send an extraordinary message about how they value the two halves of the borough, and one I think most would not be happy with.
There have been the usual ignorant or ill-informed comments which one has come to expect whenever the issue of how the arts centre is funded is raised.
These include the bizarre idea that it should stand alone as a viable business financially. Apart from the fact that this would make it pretty much unique among arts facilities in this country, if not in the world, it would also make it, I guess, close to unique as a provider in Haverhill.
Does anyone think Cineworld would be here if the Haverhill cinema had to break even each year with the inclusion of its capital cost? St Edmundsbury have been quite open about the fact that the operator was not interested in coming to Haverhill until the council agreed to build the cinema for them at a cost of £10.5million - some 60 years of the arts centre's grant.
I’d take a guess that Tesco will not so far have made the profit the business would have required if it were not part of a national chain – and the site was gifted by the council.
Do you think we would have either of the newspapers in the town if they were not part of larger organisations? Would the leisure centre exist on its own without the Bury one?
Numerous efforts have been made to create stand-alone leisure businesses in Haverhill. Where are they now? The karting centre, the snooker club, the night club... the list goes on.
The truth is, the town is too small to support such facilities alone, and its hinterland is still too tied in to its old prejudices to help.
Now, you may say the Arts should go the same way as the others if it cannot be supported. But everywhere in Britain and across the world arts facilities are subsidised, either by taxpayers, businesses or by charitable donation. They just cannot make money because they are too expensive to run, but they continue to exist. Why?
Many years ago the word ‘Podsnappery’ was in more or less common use, but it has died the death, which is a pity, because no other word is quite so effective in describing a modern phenomenon.
It comes, of course, from a character in Charles Dickens, much as ‘Pecksniffery’ or ‘Micawberism’. In Our Mutual Friend, Mr Podsnap is a large, rich and arrogant man, who regularly graces the dinner table of the nouveau riche couple, the Veneerings – much like the middle class dinner parties of today.
When Mr Podsnap does not approve of things he considers irrelevant to himself and his family, or comes across opinions different from his own, he sweeps them behind him with his arm in a gesture of Podsnappery, so that they no longer exist. Vast areas of human experience could thus be consigned to oblivion with a sweep of the Podsnap arm.
Similarly, those who would argue that the arts should pay for themselves or shrivel away, sweep more than two millennia of civilisation behind them without batting an eyelid.
Beethoven? Who cares about him? Michaelangelo? Some old Italian bloke who no one’s ever heard of. Shakespeare? What a load of gobbledygook!
What they mean is: “I don’t care about Beethoven. I’ve never heard of Michaelangelo. I don’t understand Shakespeare.” And, with true Podsnappery, their opinion is paramount, and anyone who differs is an intellectual snob.
But the Arts is much more than Beethoven, Michaelangelo and Shakespeare. Where does cinema and television come from? Where does the latest hit musical, or the latest superstar singer, or the contents of every TV talent show come from?
Creative artists enrich the lives of others and of the generations which come after them. A huge majority of people need a place to interact with that enrichment process, and if Haverhill is to hold any attraction as a town it needs to provide that.
Business sponsorship and charitable donations will help, but in the end, the taxpayer covers the shortfall – in our case, I gather, all of around another 16p a week – but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.