Merton theatre thrives despite arts cuts


The government insists philanthropy holds the key to a healthy arts scene.


By Pete Grant

To fund or not to fund – the argument is as well-trodden as a theatre stage.

Since the government began cutting Arts Council funding by almost 30% in 2010, the debate over the importance of England’s theatres has remained under the spotlight with over 200 organisations losing their funding.

This is compounded by the squeeze on local authority arts budgets, with total local government financing for arts down 16% nationally in three years.

But theatre in Merton is thriving in the face of this austerity. Established over 30 years, The Polka Theatre on Wimbledon Broadway is an internationally renowned children’s theatre and a registered charity.

It is currently gearing up for its Christmas production, The Wind in The Willows, and Artistic Director Jonathan Lloyd is fanatical about his work and the important social role of theatre.

“Theatre is so important in encouraging children to feel things, think about things, learn about things and it’s all about opening horizons,” said Mr Lloyd, who took up the post five years ago.

“We work really hard to ensure our programme and audience is representative of the mix of communities we have throughout the borough.

“Some of our funding goes towards the Curtain Up scheme subsiding school visits from disadvantaged areas and we run a full educational programme for children at risk of school exclusion.

“Socially, we’re not the only answer of course, but we’re part of the solution definitely.“

Mr Lloyd said Polka maintains a good working relationship with Merton Council, and successfully negotiated to retain nearly 70% of funding threatened when arts money was repatriated to individual London boroughs last year.

And after securing Arts Council funding until 2015, the situation looks positive for the 85,000 people passing through Polka’s doors each year.

But with 60% of its revenue coming from public funding and private sponsorship, Mr Lloyd knows that further cuts would mean Polka’s charitable objectives may be among the first services to go.

“Though things are looking positive right now, there’s still uncertainty in the future, both on a local and national level,” he said.

“The challenge is that there is a limited pot of money, which everyone is scrabbling around for.

“Say you remove local government funding, the whole thing faces collapse as the quality of work goes down. You then lose audience figures and fewer people want to fund you because no one visits. It’s a dangerous cycle.

“Everyone wants to live in a place that’s got good schools and hospitals, but when theatre’s doing it’s job it’s part and parcel of what makes an area worth living in.

“Crucially, the arts are not an industry where you can just go to sleep for a few years then come back for the good times. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Since cuts to local and national budgets were announced, the government insists philanthropy holds the key to the door of a healthy arts scene.

New Culture Secretary Maria Miller insists arts organisations need to become “better askers” for private investment.

Nick Draper, Merton Council’s Cabinet Member for Community and Culture, is well aware of the need to bring private investors on board amid dwindling government grants.

“The fundamental problem is that we’re poorly funded from central government – it’s a historical thing,” said Cllr Draper, who was appointed to the post five months ago.

“The Polka we support as best as we possibly can. We give what we can and with our backing they can obtain more elsewhere through matched funding schemes.

“It’s vital we never just stop funding projects entirely. That’s why we opt for stepping in to get the ball rolling on many projects and let other private investors get involved from there, which works well.

“We always aim to work with people rather than instead of people.”

For instance, Merton Council provided only around £1500 to get October’s Wimbledon Bookfest project off the ground so organisers could use the council’s official backing to attract other investors.

And driven by his belief of the importance of arts in local life, Cllr Draper is spearheading a new council plan for future funding.

He said: “You don’t have to fund arts and culture, in the same way as we have to invest in our schools or pay to look after our elderly people.

“But it’s these things that make the difference between existence and living so it’s my vision and my duty to retain as much as possible. That can only happen by making it sustainable.”

“We are preparing a leisure and cultural framework which will give bodies involved with leisure, culture and the arts an idea about how we intend to go about funding organising now and in the future.

“We will use this to persuade business and the amazing voluntary sector we have here in Merton to be part of the solution, rather than seeing the council’s limited funds as the problem.

“We know financially this is only the beginning, therefore it’s about investors coming in across the board so we can all work together to make Merton better and better.”

The Wimbledon Civic Theatre Trust represents a successful working model of philanthropy for Merton.

The Trust is able to provide its charitable theatre work in schools through private investors and a partnership with Ambassadors Theatre Group, which runs New Wimbledon Theatre and provides facilities for the Trust’s youth productions.

And Creative Learning Manager Andy Alty is adamant that no matter what the future holds for the arts, investment can always be found.

He said: “The WCTT is funded by well-meaning people on the most part who appreciate the work we’re doing across the whole borough and put their hands in their pockets.

“There always has been a big place for private investment. High quality arts will always find an audience and someone to invest in them.

“I’ve been working in the arts for nearly thirty years. The tide comes in and the tide goes out. But the arts always manage to thrive and survive and always will.”

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