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Last Updated: Friday, 9 November 2007, 09:39 GMT
Art of the matter
Trudi Davies
The Politics Show South East

De La Warr Pavilion

What is the point of Art? A philosophical question that has exercised any number of students and thinkers from Plato onwards.

But, in the context of this week's Politics Show, we are looking for a rather more prosaic answer.

Along the South East coast, you could be under the impression that Art - or at least the structures that house it - is to be the saving grace of our region.

This week the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne was one of just five art galleries in the UK to be granted money from the Art Fund.

Improvements and exhibits

With a new building nearing completion, at an estimated cost of 8.5m, the gallery will spend the money improving and extending its international collection of painting and sculpture.

Down the road in Bexhill-on-Sea the De La Warr Pavilion was itself the recipient of an 8.5m refurbishment grant and in Kent the Turner Contemporary in Margate is finally struggling into life.

Originally destined to open in 2007, the initial, ambitious design costs rose from 7m in 2001 to an estimated 48m by 2006.

Redesigned by David Chipperfield Architects, the building is now estimated at a cost of over 17m and is scheduled to open in 2010.

Onlookers hope it is less of a circus this time around.

Public purse stretched?

In total those three galleries cost around 34m just to get the doors open and that's before a single work of art goes on the wall.

Not all of it comes from local authorities and development agencies, but considering their already limited pot, a substantial chunk does.

To paraphrase Rolf Harris; Can you see where this is going yet?

Yes, this week we ask whether it really is money well spent.

As is the way of most things, the answer depends on who you ask. In the yes camp are the galleries themselves.

The De La Warr commissioned a report last year to assess the "creative impact" of the gallery on the surrounding economy.

The results would appear to show that the eight million or so refurbishment was indeed money well spent.

Entrance to the building is free, but the report assessed the impact to the local authority as over 16m in the financial year 2006-7.

SEEEDA in favour?

We must assume that the South East England Development Agency (SEEEDA) agree too, with a contribution of over 2m into the redevelopment of the Towner Gallery alone.

Their continued allocation of money to arts venues would appear to make them one of the strongest believers in the regenerational possibilities of art.

Towner Gallery in Eastbourne
Towner Gallery: money from the Art Fund

But we shouldn't just judge galleries and museums in pure financial terms.

There is a sniff of the old style high culture debate to all this.

John Carey in his lecture "What Good are the Arts" points out that for governments there's a belief that art will somehow improve us.

"One of the traditional justifications for opening art galleries free to the public was that if the lower orders were exposed to the uplifting effect of high art, they would be less likely to burgle your house."

He goes on to point out that no one believes this kind of thing any more. But in a letter the directors of the country's leading museums and galleries wrote, in support of continued free admission; "Visits to former charging museums have increased by 87% and have attracted more diverse audiences.

"An extra 16m children have visited museums since they were granted free entry in 1998, and the number of visits from people from lower socio-economic groups has risen to 6.5m in 2004-05."

So there you are, Art is good for us and it is right that government and local authorities spend money encouraging us to look at it.

There are a few people who remain unconvinced by the all this.

De La Warr Pavilion
1m required for upkeep of Pavilion

Since the De La Warr reopened, the Arts Council and Rother District Council have put up over 500,000 a year each to the upkeep of the grade one listed building.

Pensioners protest?

The Council's contribution is indexed-linked to the Arts council and they find out in a few weeks just how much they will have to spend in the next financial year.

Christopher Starnes, Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee at Rother says that although the building is of enormous architectural importance to the country, local feeling is not completely behind the amount of funding required to keep it going.

It's true that the building is a centre for contemporary arts and that the footfall has been high but it's not necessarily local people that are walking through it and enjoying the artistic and cultural events.

At the time of the 2001 census 35% of the population of Rother was over 60 years old, it's not surprising that there is local unrest about council funding for a project that, by its nature, is far more likely to appeal to younger art lovers.

East Sussex County Council held a "Priorities and Budget Consultation" for the 2006/7 financial year.

In it they asked panels of local residents what their priorities where when it came to spending their council tax on council services.

The top five requirements were:

  • keeping council tax rises low
  • keeping communities safe
  • helping older and vulnerable people to stay in their own homes
  • raising educational standards
  • providing less congested roads

Not a gallery or museum in sight

And then there are the myriad local artists in the region who say they are fed up with the money going to the big, showcase projects and not to support them.

What's more, they claim that when big money for buying art does reach the region, the galleries spend it on international artists not home grown ones.

The galleries refute this and point to the support that they provide and the interest that they generate for the arts and the artists across the region but it's true that the Towner's 1m award is for international work so Eastbourne's artists are not holding their breath.

The Arts Fund, providers of the money and the reason for our artistic investigations this week, say that money from the government is in decline and it is increasingly left to private and charitable investment from bodies such as themselves to support galleries like the Towner.

It's not just about putting up the buildings, they claim, it is also about what goes on the walls and without funds like theirs, the walls would look rather bare.

Some funding comes from the Department of Culture Media and Sport and there is a hefty 255m from the Lottery Heritage Fund this year.

But, as we reported on an earlier programme, more and more of this is heading towards the Olympics and by 2010 arts bodies will be receiving 75m less.

With no statutory requirement for local authorities to fund museums through their budgets, it all looks fairly precarious.

But then, as we asked at the beginning, does it really matter?

With a limited pot of money what would the residents of Bexhill or Margate like, an arts centre or more care for the elderly?

Should the government or the councils be putting money into art? Is Art the saviour or the region's coastal towns?

Sue Johns from Seeeda, Felicity Harvest from the Arts Council and local artist Robin Holtom join Paul on Sunday to debate the issues further.

We would like to include as many of your views as possible so:

Text us on 07786 209252 or email us at politicsshowsoutheast@bbc.co.uk or via the link below.

The earlier we receive your comments the more likely we are to get them on air. You don't have to wait until the show has started!

Film School graphic

Also on the programme

Film school

Week three of our series of films made by young people across the region. This week we showcase a documentary made by students from Central Sussex College in Haywards Heath.

The campaign in the town to save the Princess Royal Hospital provided them with an ideal topic, combining politics and strong local feeling.

In their film they interview campaigners and politicians and recreate the journey that an ambulance would have to take if the Accident and Emergency services are downgraded and transferred to Brighton.

In their interview with Paul Siegert they talk about the experience of making the film and the effect it has had on them.

At least one student feels empowered by the achievements of the campaigners and looks forward to continuing in local politics.

This strand looks ahead to 23 November 2007 which is designated as 11m Takeover Day.

Backed by the office of the children's commissioner, it is billed as "a chance for the 11m children and young people in England to take over from adults".

As councils, government departments, television stations and businesses open their doors and their board rooms to children and young people the Children's Commissioner hopes that it will be "an opportunity to celebrate the importance of children and young people in our society".

On 25 November the South East part of the Politics Show will have a series of reports from young people and children.

Their experience of Takeover Day will be just one of the topics.

It is easy...

...to take part in the show. If you have an idea for an item, want to make your own report or simply want to comment on what we are doing then please get in touch via any of the links below or write to the Politics Show team at Politics Show, Lambent Productions, The Media Centre, 21-22 Old Steyne, Brighton, BN1 1EL.

Join us on the Politics Show on Sunday 11 November 2007 at 12:10 GMT... on BBC One

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