Opinion: Bath is a cultural city by John Emmett

John Emmett

Bath is a Cultural City, by Luke John Emmett: Culture exists and flourishes here despite the ever-challenging landscape. Insular pockets of creativity adjourn every corner & deep recess of the city. Professional and amateur – it makes little difference – the standard is always consistently high.
Artists, musicians, writers, dancers, actors, poets, comedians, to name but a few: create, imagine and dream. Each year more and more energised, creative students emerge from the university – heads brimming with ideas and ambitions for what could be.
But the last few years have been tough. It was hard before the pandemic. Bath was seated in an abyss of cuts and cultural vandalism.
Firstly, organisations lost regular council funding with little or no warning leaving many of them balancing on a dangerous precipice. Then came the destruction of the entire Arts Development department. Cutting loose our arts officers and all council funding for the arts in B&NES.
And finally, the pandemic hit – arts and culture ground to a resounding halt. Nobody knew when we would be able to get going again. But we shifted. We adapted. We found new homes online and in the virtual world. Barriers came down and organisations and individuals communicated and worked together in ways that we could only ever have dreamed of before. It was terrifying; but also, exciting.
There was much talk of building back better. Finding new, fairer ways to work. Some organisations remembered this, and exciting new things began to happen. But not all of them. Some just wished to keep the status quo, as problematic and out of touch with the modern world as that may be. They continued to hide in the safety of their stagnated realities where everyone looks and sounds the same. Trying to perform to the same audiences, many of whom were just not there anymore. And nobody dared challenge decisions made or question why things are done the way they are. Lots of them lost good staff – highly skilled people left the creative industries in droves to find more stable and properly paid work in other sectors.
The skills shortage has left gaps which have yet to be adequately filled, adding extra stress and burden to those who remain and not to mention dangerous working environments. It’s a perfect storm, that in honesty, has been a wakeup call that has been a long time coming.
There is currently no arts or cultural strategy in B&NES which is criminal for a city which thrives on cultural tourism. The last incarnation sat on a shelf gathering dust and was all but forgotten. But not by the funding bodies who constantly questioned why no organisations were quoting the document when applying for funding and, subsequently, failed in their bids. The impact of this has been starkly highlighted by the latest round of Arts Council National Portfolio funding results – with a single organisation receiving regular funding in the whole of B&NES. It’s hard to justify our collective worth and impact as a sector when there is no singular body collecting, and collating the data proving our existence and our impact, (both from a health & wellbeing point of view and economically). With next to no support from the Council (another important factor that funders require to strengthen applications) how can the city be all that it has the full potential to be?
Collaborations are happening and brilliant work across all of the creative sectors is being produced here. But, with some joined-up thinking, strategy, hard data and everyone working together, Bath has the potential to be so much more than it currently is.
• Luke is the Creative Director of Theatre Bath and Co-Director and Founder of the Theatre Bath Bus. For more on his work visit https://lukejohnemmett.co.uk/