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Housing the Arts
The cross-departmental initiative known as ‘Housing the Arts’ ran from 1965
to the late-1980s and was unofficially resumed in the form of National Lottery
grants for theatre building during the 1990s. The scheme was aimed at the
creation of ‘bricks and mortar’ projects and was not intended for the ongoing
maintenance of theatre buildings or the support of theatre companies. The
amounts of money earmarked for individual building projects were not large
and neither was Housing the Arts given the same level of funding from the
Council’s overall budget as certain other key priorities. It did, however, enable
the ACGB to prime the pump for larger investments in theatre buildings by
local authorities, private developers and other agencies. Originally the
responsibility of the Finance Department, Housing the Arts was taken over by
the Regional Department during the financial year 1982/83.
From its earliest days in the mid-1940s, the ACGB was committed to
replenishing the nation’s stock of performing arts venues — many of which
had been damaged or destroyed during World War II. There is a marked
emphasis on theatre schemes in the Arts Council’s 1954/5 annual report,
where a building initiative was thought to be the most effective way of saving
both repertory and touring theatre. The following year, the Council produced a
model and plans for a multi-purpose Arts Centre, which it intended for
communities of varying size (typically, between 15,000 and 30,000
inhabitants). Enlisting the help of the Design Unit of the Ministry of Town and
Country Planning, the Council’s proposals were meant to stimulate debate
and stir criticism rather than to be slavishly copied.1 But the idea to build arts
centres around the country proved divisive: it had been put forward by the
Secretary General William Emrys Williams but was dismissed by Chairman
John Maynard Keynes, whose preference was for a more traditional form of
theatre architecture and traditional theatrical activity. The split between these
two different conceptions of theatre is reflected in the ACGB archive, where
Arts Council of Great Britain, Plans for an Arts Centre (London: Lund Humphries, 1946).
Housing the Arts material relates alternately to theatre refurbishments and
extensions and to the building of modern arts centres and community arts
In 1958, having secured a formal request from Harold Macmillan (then
Chancellor of the Exchequer), the Arts Council set up a Housing the Arts
Committee of Enquiry to look into the state of theatre buildings nationally and
make recommendations for the future. The results were published in two
parts, in 1959 and 1961, but a further four years passed before the Council
was given the means to embark on its programme of capital grants 2
Increasing the ACGB grant-in-aid in 1965, the Treasury said it hoped that
Housing the Arts would address ‘any scheme for which there is a reasonable
body of support among people interested in the arts, and which can be
regarded as a practicable proposition over (say) the next ten years with or
without some measure of Government assistance.3 The ACGB Committee’s
official recommendations are outlined in the ACGB’s Sixteenth Annual Report
(1960/61), ‘Partners in Patronage’, as: the creation of a circuit of between
twelve and eighteen No. 1 theatres to receive touring productions of opera,
ballet and drama nationally; the creation or renovation of a repertory theatre
building in every town of more than 200,000 people; and the creation or
renovation of a public hall suitable for performance in every town of not less
than 100,000 people.4 By 1976, the Arts Council had either paid or promised
grants totalling £8,214,500 to 271 building schemes in England, Scotland and
At its best, the creation of a physical regional theatre infrastructure through
Housing the Arts has played a valuable part in devolving power from the West
End and big, subsidised metropolitan theatres to the English regions,
Scotland and Wales; the initiative affected programming, technical capability
The results were published as: Arts Council of Great Britain, ‘Housing the Arts in Great Britain, Part I:
The Needs of the Metropolis / Housing the Arts in Scotland / Housing the Arts in Wales’ (London:
ACGB, 1959) and Arts Council of Great Britain, ‘Housing the Arts in Great Britain, Part II: The Needs of
the English Provinces’ (London: ACGB, 1961).
3 Arts Council of Great Britain, ‘Housing the Arts in Great Britain, Part I: The Needs of the Metropolis /
Housing the Arts in Scotland / Housing the Arts in Wales’ (London: ACGB, 1959) p. xi.
Arts Council of Great Britain, Sixteenth Annual Report, 1960-61, pp. 13-14.
and theatrical possibility and there are interesting connections to be made
between the theatre-building programme and attempts to regenerate urban
regional centres. At its worst, Housing the Arts has resulted in a landscape of
‘neutral’ purpose-built theatre auditoria, which ally ‘subsidy, theatre orthodoxy
and political conservatism’ in a deadening institutionalisation.5 In seeking to
house the arts in permanent structures, the Council has opened itself (and its
subsidised theatre clients) to accusations that it has an ‘edifice complex’.
Housing the Arts material (which includes both textual records and
architectural drawings) can be found throughout the files of the Drama
Department — many of which are listed by the individual name or location of
the theatre building in question.
Series, and files, which the researcher may find particularly useful, are:
Arts Development Division: 1928-1997
Drama Department 1928-1995
Drama: General 1944-1995
Housing the Arts and Theatre Buildings 1956-79
Policy and Information Files 1929-1994
Housing the Arts: Committee of Enquiry 1958-59
Mike Pearson, ‘My Balls / Your Chin,’ Performance Research 3.2 (1998) pp. 35-41 (p. 36)
Arts Development Division: 1928-1997
Touring Department 1933-1996
Touring Drama: Touring Officer’s Files 1971-1987
This series contains various individual Housing the Arts
applications and related records.
Finance and Resources Division: 1940-1996
Finance Department 1940-1996
Housing the Arts Files 1960-1994
Housing the Arts: ‘Closed’ Files 1961-1985
Housing the Arts: Planning Records 1954-1985
Housing the Arts: Administration Files 1965-1985
Policy and External Relations Division: 1942-1996
Policy and Planning Unit 1950-1996
Policy and Information Files 1966-1996
This series contains several separate entries for Housing
the Arts (each containing policy and information papers
rather than the individual project documents that are
typically found in the Drama Department’s records) as
well as information on the phasing out of Housing the
Combined Arts, Community Arts and Art Centres
This series contains several files on Housing the Arts as
well as on individual Arts Centres and theatre building
Those interested in Arts Centres should be aware that following the 1985/86
restructuring of the Arts Council, Housing the Arts material relating to later
buildings projects of this type is likely to be found in the sub-group:
Arts Development Division: 1928-1997
Combined Arts Unit 1986-1996
New Collaborations Fund 1991-1996
Head of Combined Arts Unit’s Files 1991-1995
Policy and Information Files 1986-1996
Some other series also contain small amounts of material on Housing the
Arts; for instance, the curiously named ‘G’ Series in the sub-group:
Finance and Resources Division: 1940-1996
Information Department: 1957-1991
'G' Series 1970-1984
Housing the Arts 1974-80