I confess to tears welling up at a government expenditure cut. True it was in local government but it did in fact hurt me deeply. It was a report that Walsall’s New Art Gallery was threatened with closure.
Now I guess that few readers will have visited Walsall. It is certainly in no holiday brochure. Like many West Midlands towns it was once a manufacturing centre, having a thriving leather industry until only a few decades ago. Of late it has suffered the decline common to many towns in the area.
But Walsall has a few gems. There is the arboretum, a rival to Scarborough’s splendid Peasholme Park, which had autumn illuminations until cuts ended them in 2011. Walsall’s main shopping street, though tired, shows from its imaginative modern brickwork that the planners and developers wanted to make something attractive of the town.
In Palfrey Park there is one of John McKeller’s best works, the stainless steel Palfrey Horse, which is so adorable and lifelike that one wants to hug it.
And then there is Walsall’s New Art Gallery. Opened in 2000 by the side of the restored canal arm, the art gallery was a symbol of the town’s rejuvenation. The building was loved by some and criticised by others. But, in particular, its collection from Kathleen Garman (later wife of the sculptor Jacob Epstein), gifted to the town of Walsall, is a miniature gem. Intimate and personal, it is presented in a way that draws one into the lives and times of the artists as well as displaying their work. It was the thought of the loss of that which elicited my tear.
Walsall cannot afford the £800,000 a year the gallery costs to run and therefore the Arts Council will remove its grant as well. Who knows what will happen to the building? No doubt another charity shop will be glad of the opportunity it presents. And another piece of valuable culture will be lost.
Local government, as much as national government, must live within its means. But it is worth looking at the detail of why local authorities are under such pressure. In particular, the increase in wages brought about by minimum wage legislation and, more recently, the National Living Wage has steadily pushed up costs. Local authorities have limited income. When they increase wages, the only way they can stay within budget is by cutting the number of employees. So the least important services go – libraries, day centres…and art galleries.
The madness is that, without government legislation, the arts could be run at much lower costs, the principal ones being labour. My opera director friend loved his music and cheerfully provided false time sheets, being entirely happy to earn less than the minimum wage. ‘There is no money in travelling opera,’ he told me ‘ but I’d much rather work in the arts for a pittance than do any other job.’ There is the granddaughter of a friend who yearns for a job in a museum. Any job, any rate – because working in a museum is exactly what she wants to do. And yet the government forbids it. It is against the law to pay someone less than the National Living Wage so there are no jobs available in museums. Instead of working in a museum for £5 per hour, the girl in question will join the ever-increasing number of graduates being paid £7.20 by McDonald’s.
And so we see a scythe cutting through the arts. Since they can’t pay their employees less than the National Living Wage, they will be axed. All around us art galleries, museums, libraries and theatres are closing. Instead of low-paid jobs in the arts there will be no jobs. Woe betide one for commissioning a requiem from a Mozart, whose only desire was to compose, without first checking that the amount that one was paying was equivalent to National Living Wage plus pension and holiday pay.
It’s not just the arts that will be affected. While wage regulation will please some who are employed, it means that the same amount of money will be spread over fewer employees. There is no magic money tree: higher wages mean fewer employees. Steadily the National Living Wage will create an underclass. By then we will all be Philistine. There will certainly be few art galleries left.