Friday, 8 February 2013

Interview with Graeme Rigby from the Amber Collective about the Proposed Funding Cuts by the City Council

Graeme Rigby from the Amber Collective

Recently, the Newcastle City Council proposed to cut 100% of their funding to the “independent cultural organisations” in Newcastle by 2015/16. This plan is still in consultation and it remains to be confirmed.

If these cuts were enforced, the Newcastle-based cinemas would be affected by them. On the 29th of January 2013, I went to interview Mark Dobson from the Tyneside Cinema, Graeme Rigby from the Side Cinema, and Ilana Mitchell from the Star &Shadow Cinema to ask them how they might be affected by the cuts (financially and in terms of their programme).

This is the transcription of the interview that I made with Graeme Rigby, one of the founding members of the Amber Collective.


The very cosy screen of the Side Cinema

The Amber collective is a group of filmmakers and photographers, who've been making work since the 1970s. The collective is organised around 3 sets of activities: they produce and make films and photography, they hold a photography gallery where they show work made by themselves and by photographers from all over the world, and they also have a 48-seat cinema in which they programme films – again, either their own films or films by other directors.

I first asked Graeme Rigby how the Side Cinema was funded and how the cuts might affect it, and he gave me some background about how the Side Cinema is integrated as part of the Amber Collective:

Graeme Rigby:

“Side Cinema gets very little funding. We get a small amount from Creative England, which replaced the Regional Screen Agencies. But Side Cinema is largely speaking supported as a voluntary enterprise. We have to try and make it pay its way, mostly through commercial bookings and box office.

Side Cinema is part of the Amber film and photography collective, and we integrate its activities as part of it. We run a cinema because we want to be able to screen films that excite us, and the whole presentation of which excites us, just as we want to show documentary photography in the gallery because it inspires us, and inspires our audiences as well.

The cinema is not specifically funded by Newcastle City Council or the Arts Council. But it can’t run without the gallery organising the whole schedule, and the ticket sales, etc. It can’t run without the members of the collective who are mostly involved with production, coming and doing the box office or the projection, the programming, etc. There’s isn’t really the money to cover that properly. There are little bits of money that come into the organisation to enable that, but they are quite small.

The impact of the cuts is that as everything else becomes harder and harder to keep doing, so then Side Cinema becomes even harder. Because it doesn’t get much funding. And it’s mostly done out of love.”

Picture from Shooting Magpies (2005, 80 min, feature film, by the Amber Collective)

I asked Graeme Rigby how much the Newcastle City Council was giving to the Amber Collective, and what the proposed cuts were:

Graeme Rigby:

“We used to get £20,000 a year from the City Council, and it was reduced to £15,000 a year a couple of years ago, and it’s now being held on £15,000. In the current proposal, they will stop funding us completely by the end of 2013-14.”

Graeme Rigby then explained to me that the Arts Council and the Newcastle City Council were advising them to apply for money from foundations and trusts. However, he also explained how in his eyes, the reductions in funding from the city council, might actually make these further fundraising activities more difficult, because of the bad story that would be attached to the Newcastle-based arts organisations:

Graeme Rigby:

“The problem is that the City Council is saying “we are not going to be funding the arts”. And that tells a bad story to people around the country. Foundations, trusts and philanthropists can support the arts all over the country. Most of them are not based here in the North East, they can support work wherever. And they will support work where, in a sense, they feel like their investment is matched and is in a stronger position to achieve the kind of really positive results that they want to associate themselves with. That story is not a good story at the moment for Newcastle.”

One of the iconic photos form the Amber Collective - taken by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen for her project on Byker

Graeme Rigby then commented on the way he felt the arts funding was changing in the UK as a whole at the moment:

Graeme Rigby:

“At the heart of this, there is a political direction. The government actively wants things like culture off the books. It doesn’t want culture being funded at a national or at a local authority level. It wants these things shifted, as they are very much in the United States, and for cultural organisations to apply to philanthropists, trusts, foundations and sponsorship. And that’s a political agenda.

We have seen that come through the Arts Council, and the changes that the Arts Council has been pushed towards, and they themselves are pushing that onto arts organisations. And we’re seeing it in the local authorities too. So yes, we are being attacked through all of those avenues.

But it is deliberate. It is absolutely deliberate. And you can accuse the government of vandalism, you can accuse the government of stupidity, but they do think they know what they’re doing. And it isn’t just the arts that are suffering in this way.”

Photo from the shooting of the film Seacoal (1985, Amber's 1st feature film) - here with Peter Woodhouse, Peter Roberts and Ellin Hare

Graeme Rigby then talked about the changes in the type of funding that the Amber Collective now gets from the Arts Council – the change between revenue funding and project funding – and the impact that that has on their work:

Graeme Rigby:

“We no longer get revenue funding from the Arts Council, we are in receipt of project funding [which is less regular funding that revenue funding], and we’re trying to make things work in that way.

Again that’s hard, because it’s deliberately not regular. It just introduces difficulties. And at the end of the day, you can overcome those difficulties, you find other ways of doing things, etc, but you spend more and more of your time doing that, and necessarily less and less of your time doing the things that really are where your skills lie, and where the benefits to society at large lie. You spend less time creating things.

You can spend less time in the creation of things or alternatively you can decide that you’re going to do it all for nothing, and within the collective, people don’t do things only if there is money. But it becomes harder and harder. Everybody has to live at the end of the day.”

Photo from the film The Writing in the Sand (1991) - Photography by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen

Graeme Rigby did explain to me though that he is and remains an optimist for the future of Side Cinema, and he told me about their future projects and development pan:

Graeme Rigby:

“Personally I’m an optimist. Always. There are ways forward, and I think one should try to push forward as best one can. We have a big and ambitious development plan in which the cinema plays a major role. It will be about opening up access to our film and photographic archive, and generating a whole range of activities around what is a unique collection, and one of the most significant bodies of cultural work to have come out of the North East over the last 50 years. It’s a fantastic thing, and it must be made accessible to people.

Basically at the moment we’re digitising everything, that’s the plan. It’s a major project. We have digitised about 15% of the collection, and you can see a lot of photographs on amber-online, and we do regular presentations of our films on SideTV. We work quite a lot with what we’ve done, but there’s a huge amount. Not just films and the body of photographic work, but there’s a mass of research videos from the 80s, which really should be put in the public domain. Also, digitising all of that is part of the plan to do with generating income, because as it is digitised, where we have rights, we can exploit it, so that’s a major part of the plan, so there is a logic.

And yes, we have a development plan, and I am full of optimism. But I would not pretend that success is guaranteed, and I wouldn’t pretend that I don’t have moments when it looks a bit difficult.”

You can see the whole list of films made by Amber here.

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