As more and more arts and youth projects flounder under the weight of the government’s austerity measures it’s no surprise that one of the biggest in London is also struggling to keep afloat.
Last week Weekend Arts College in Belsize Park announced that it was closing its junior programme five weeks early due to a financial shortfall. Does this signal the end of the road for WAC, which was plunged into a financial crisis two years ago after the Arts Council scrapped its entire £100,000 grant?
The answer from chief executive Celia Greenwood is a resounding “no”. “We have launched a major fund raising drive and the response has been fantastic which is why, oddly enough, I am feeling positive about our future.”
It is the sort of fighting talk you’d expect from a woman who helped set up WAC 35 years with just three classes and steered it from strength to strength. Up to a thousand youngsters now attend its weekend and evening programme at its large and airy premises in Hampstead Town Hall, paying no more than £1.50 for classes in drama, dance, music and film and music production.
But the last couple of years have been a struggle and the decision to reduce term time for Junior WAC, which caters for up to 400 children aged 5-14 each Saturday, is one of several cut backs the organisation has been forced to recently make.
Some have suggested that WAC should raise its fees, but Greenwood will have none of this, believing that the arts are essential in young people’s development. “Our mission is to develop all the qualities that are required for a successful life and personal well being – like confidence, collaborative skills and the ability to communicate. That’s why WAC should be open to all, including those on low incomes,” she insisted.
She found it “depressing” that the arts were now becoming a preserve of the rich. “Private music tuition, for example, costs £30 an hour, and schools now have to charge for lessons whereas once they were free and came with instruments. The fact the arts are not being included in the Ebac is further evidence that they are being downgraded.”
At present the college survives mainly on support from Camden Council and the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation, which stepped in with a cash lifeline two years ago. But WAC is now seeking to change the balance of its funding, drawing on the help of what she calls the “WAC family”.
“Sourcing money from public bodies is no longer sustainable,” Greenwood explained. “We are asking those parents who can afford it to take part in a gift aid scheme and for our alumni to also donate a pledged amount.”
A new Friends of WAC scheme will include 5,000 alumni, who have promised to donate at least £5 each. Several have pledged to donate £5,000 for the next three years, while a number of parents are planning their own fundraising events.
Former students include a number of big names, like singer Ms Dynamite and pianist Julia Joseph, earning WAC its ‘fame school’ tag, a description Greenwood bristles at. Success in the creative industries via the college was just a “spin off”, she stated.
WAC began in 1978 on the site of the Talacre Sports Centre in Kentish Town. At the time Greenwood was head of drama and dance at Acland Burleigh School in Tufnell Park and was coming across a lot of children who were not thriving under the education system. “Half of WAC students had been excluded or were having a hard time at school yet they were doing amazing things with us. It was a question of harnessing the abilities of those that didn’t fit on the conveyor belt and empowering them.”
Later WAC expanded to include younger children and those with learning disabilities. In 2000 its moved to its present base, from where it also runs a diploma in musical theatre and an alternative school for those who have dropped out of education or are at risk of doing so.
Although Greenwood is upbeat that the organisation can pull through she regrets that it has been reduced to fire fighting. “We would much prefer to be supporting the community with a full programme of enrichment for youngsters rather than just offering the basics.”
Looking beyond WAC, she says is fearful for today’s youngsters. “Camden no longer has a play service, its youth service is greatly reduced, Connexions is gone, so has Job Train… It is all so terribly depressing because we are destroying young people’s future. In 10 year’s time everyone will be wondering what went wrong and we will have to start all over again.”
Published January 24, 2013