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The Case of Lincoln Drill Hall

Last week, the City of Lincoln Council decided not to renew the funding for the Lincoln Drill Hall. This has led to feelings of anger and despair in the local community, with yet another cultural venue being left completely vulnerable and unsupported during the Covid-19 pandemic. In a statement released by Lincolnshire Live the Labour led council expressed that they “believe the Drill Hall is not financially viable in its current form”. This led to attacks from the local socialist party in Lincoln, which claims that the Labour councillors have turned their back on the community. Whilst it should be said that the socialist party have not been at the forefront of this campaign, nor have they provided permanent solutions to the problem, it is disheartening to see the eventual consequences this decision will have on the local community and the plethora of services the Drill Hall provides - other than financial profit. That is the fundamental issue wedged into the Arts sector at this time. What is more disturbing, however, is the self-assured choices presented by Labour councillors during Labour Party CLP meetings. This article will examine the history of Lincoln’s Drill Hall, its variety of programmes that still operate today, focusing on the councillors’ complete disregard of differing opinions offered during CLP meetings, and on local governments’ economic disintegration, whilst looking at how the future of art and culture should be preserved in the time of Covid. At the time of writing, the Lincoln Drill Hall will keep operating until the end of the financial renewal in 2021. The Arts Council has also threatened to pull out of funding if the venue is not seen as commercially viable, a decision that both the Arts Council and the Lincolnshire City Council share in values as well as practical assertion.

The Lincoln Drill Hall was built primarily for military and police training, but it developed into a social community setting for arts and culture. After it was built in 1890, it would be used for dances, bingos, and concert programmes. Most drill halls have been passed off to local authorities which use them for social and cultural events, although many, in the past few years, have been demolished or privately sold off due to the financially incompatible upkeep of the institutions. As time went on, the Lincoln Drill Hall was used primarily for jazz and rock bands. The Rolling Stones performed there the night before their Top of the Pops debut in 1963 on New Years Eve. The venue closed in 1999 as it was considered in ‘disrepair’ but was eventually re-opened in 2004 due to public demand, after being awarded a £2.6 million refurbishment. In 2010, it became part of the Lincoln Arts Trust Ltd, a charity system that runs the five arts centres in Lincoln. Despite its history and popular demand for the venue to stay open, the Drill Hall has never made a huge amount of money. Although the council glossed over it, the venue offers services to the community such as drama clubs, dance and salsa classes, movement classes for over 50s, and operates on an open-door policy that allows creatives to discuss and potentially produce their performances. These are only few examples of what the Drill Hall has to offer. It includes theatre and performance, music concerts and festivals, participatory festivals for people with disabilities, pantomimes, child-friendly and stand-up comedy shows, with comedians who have gone onto mainstream circuits of the likes of Russell Howard. The venue offers a wide variety of programmes that are not only expansive, but inclusive and interactive. To make it more commercially exploitative means that less people will be able to access culture. Just by looking at the astronomical prices of the West-End it is easy to understand that working-class families are precluded from enjoying a big part of British culture. This is one of the main reasons why it is crucial to save regional and local non-profit art’s venues.

The CLP meeting, attended by Labour members, saw a lot of bickering about bureaucracy and dogmatic affairs for an hour and a half. A useless meeting up until the point when the City of Lincoln council’s report was due. The councillors – when approaching the non-renewal of funding, spoke in a self-defensive manner, and at the same time revealed a self-congratulatory tone, as they were putting “people” before the venue. Ironic, of course, given the fact that the Lincoln Drill Hall does employ people whose livelihoods are now in danger, and will ultimately be lost. This has been confirmed by the Lincoln Drill Hall’s Twitter profile. The council defended their choice by claiming that the venue was not “commercially viable”. Thatcher and William Rees-Mogg used that term in the 1980s, whose policies had a disastrous impact on the cultural scene, leading to the closure of many venues which never fully recovered from the cuts to their funds. This is thoroughly analysed in Olivia Turnbull’s Bringing Down the House, which focuses on the impact of the cuts imposed by Thatcherism, and the mirage of Blair’s “golden years” for the arts and culture and regional theatre. That same history is now being repeated by councillors and the Arts Council itself in venues across the country. The CLP meeting tried to counteract as quickly as possible this agenda, hoping to limit the damage that had been done to the confidence of Labour party members. Unfortunately, these decisions are currently being made at a national level as well, with mass redundancies occurring in national and local theatres alike. This is proving to be a catastrophic crisis for arts venues across Britain and when seeing other countries securing billions for its arts and strongly investing in culture to assure its survival - like Germany or France’s £7 billion for its arts and cultures - it is inevitable to question UK’s national and local government decisions. The councillors could have voted it down and opposed harsh austerity measures, but they instead opted to appease the Tories, now demanding members to blame the Tories for their actions. This will only lead to the alienation of left-wing Labour members, which will be ultimately pushed out of the party. The damage that these councillors are doing only remind us that they are trying to dismantle the Labour movement, but let’s remind ourselves that we are stronger than that. Campaigns will be set up by groups like Art-Rising to go out and protest in the upcoming weeks. The PCS union have also been a real driving force in the last few weeks of protests. They have been able to galvanise workers across the arts sector to demand no redundancies and better working conditions. The Tories, the millionaire producers and the Blairite Labour councillors serve as a reminder to us socialists to fight against their tyranny, once and for all.

How should we approach these cuts against our arts venues? Some people choose moral obligation towards the intrinsic value of art, others believe that it is an economic value that should not be wasted. Both present noble intents, but short-sighted. There is a third option: art reflects the society we live in. Not just thanks to the experience of the performance or its content, but by registering the conditions and reception it receives which are essential to document the changes in society. It can make us look back and study the world from the perspective of a playwright, a painter, an artist. It also has the potential to become a political campaign, a message of thought. Let’s throw away the stuffy theatre venues and begin to re-create work such as the one offered by the Red Ladder Theatre company, John McGrath or 7:84, which presented their works to working-class communities by relating it to their experiences. Let’s bring theatre out in the streets, town halls and pubs. Creatives need to drop their careerist attitude and start understanding how their work can contribute to the socio-political frameworks of our society. That makes art relevant to the ordinary worker.

The Lincoln councillors have not only damaged an artistic space for the community, but they have demolished any sort of interaction with that same community. It is time to put aside the Kensyian economic model of arts subsidies and instead design a new system for the Arts Council that nationalises theatre, putting it back into state hands. To provide fair and impartial work, it must run using “arms-length” policy that was already supposed to be implemented by The Arts Council. It must now be a demand that all arts workers fight for the short-term and the long term, with the former being defending the workers, protesting redundancies and calling out the disgusting treatment of the millionaire producers who have created appalling working conditions. Long-term fights will be focused on creating a network of state-owned theatres organised by A New Arts Council, serving a wide variety of programming that reflects our society. By taking those steps, the Lincoln Drill Hall will and can be saved.

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