Cooltan: don't let it die: Brixton needs it, I need it and it doesn't need much

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The Independent Online
Cooltan Arts in Brixton is about to close. This is extremely annoying because it is the only arts centre I have ever had any desire to visit more than once. Unusu-ally for an arts centre, it makes people feel good and creative instead of poor and stupid. Last year 30,000 people stepped through its doors and it provided many excellent services in an area where local unemployment is 40 per cent. It will close for want of pounds 50,000. Meanwhile, in the same city, the English National Opera receives a grant of pounds 12m and Covent Garden gets even more.

Now I have nothing against opera . OK, I am lying, opera is surely the dullest form of entertainment this side of breakfast television. I have nothing against people going to see it, but pounds 12m to entertain people who, I state with some confidence, already have more than their fair share of the nation's wealth?

Is it fair that taxes taken from the miserable lower stratum of society, such as me, should go to subsidise tickets for rich people to squeeze their way into Covent Garden to see gargantuan singers belting out incomprehensible arias, while right here in Brixton, Cooltan Arts is being ejected from its premises because Employment Services, part of the civil service and therefore run by the Government, wants to wring out a further pounds 50,000 from the sale of its property?

Briefly, Cooltan exists in the old Brixton dole office, which has been squatted and used as a flourishing arts centre for two years. Employment Services has now sold the building to the Voice newspaper for pounds 180,000, rejecting Cooltan's offer of pounds 130,000. The building will now probably become offices. It was within the power of the Employment Service commissioner to sell at a lower price if local conditions justified it, and if the grim local conditions in Brixton don't justify a bit of help for a successful arts centre, then I can't imagine what does.

At Cooltan, you can do life drawing or yoga or t'ai chi or drumming and the classes are either pounds 1 or pounds 2. Unemployed or poorly paid people cannot afford to pay commercial rates for such things elsewehere. Surely this alone gives Cooltan a considerable edge over the South Bank centre. You can rehearse with your band, learn to meditate and eat cheaply in the cafe - a cup of tea costs only 30p.

You can hang out at the story-telling evening and wander round the frequent art exibitions. I am not much of a fan of the art exhibitions, as Michaelangelo does not yet seem to have reincarnated in Brixton but, personal preferences apart, I understand they are well regarded, and the point is, of course, that local people have nowhere else to work and exhibit.

Cooltan provides studio and exhibition space for artists that is unavailable elsewhere. At weekends there are wildly successful gigs and mixed media events, the profits from which could conceivably go towards funding a new centre, were a little outside help to be offered.

The place is run by local people, all volunteers. No salaried professional is there to tell people what is good for them. Anyone can go along to meetings with suggestions. Go to enough meetings and you will probably end up helping to run the place. It has good relations with the local police and politicians, and the environment is peaceful.

I would not wish to pretend that Cooltan is perfect, and am still peeved that, through poor organisation, they missed a chance to help Brixton's excellent Bad Attitude magazine. But it is a fine place and has potential to be even finer. It provides a space where art can develop among people for whom the Arts Council will never cater. If our Government had any interest whatsoever in the quality of life of ordinary people, they would be down here applauding instead of continually making life worse for everyone.

What is the total London arts grant given to opera, symphony orchestras, ballet and suchlike? Vast, I imagine. Who benefits? No one signing on in Brixton, or any other part of London's huge deprived inner-city sprawl, where a bit of help might be thought to be a reasonable idea. Why should David Mellor get a subsidised ticket to La Traviata at the same time as cheap life drawing classes in Brixton are coming to an end? In effect, the Tory Party is using other people's money to pay for its own entertainment.

There are a few months left before Cooltan is evicted. Failing a large suprise donation from the Getty Foundation, the situation seems hopeless. The local council could conceivably come up with some cheap accommodation but that is unlikely. Brixton's best centre for arts, music and self-education will cease to exist and last year's 30,000 visitors will again find themselves with no space in which to express their creativity.

Those poverty-stricken persons still yearning for culture will just have to save up their benefit for a ticket to the opera.

Martin Millar's latest novel, Dreams of Sex and Stage Diving, is published by Fourth Estate.

(Photograph omitted)

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