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One Steinway or scores of old joannas…what has the greatest impact? By Adrian Lochhead

I have been arguing for a while that, in the face of what is unquestionably a challenging time for the public cultural sector (and indeed, for the public sector as a whole), rather than falling into the default position of what I call ‘defensive instrumentalism’ – whereby a narrowly instrumental case is put forward in the hope it will have persuasive power – there might be scope for some bold, fresh thinking. Perhaps when the going gets really tough and just replaying tired old arguments around impact and social and personal transformation simply won’t work, we might get away with having a proper debate… In this context, I have made, on several occasions now, the point that (and I accept that for those working in the sector this might give rise to all sorts of anxieties) now is the time to asks really awkward questions about ‘cultural value’, arts funding and what happens as a result of further cuts. At a presentation I gave at a recent event in Edinburgh entitled Culturing our Creativity, I suggested that the following questions might be a good starting point for debate:

  • How do the publicly funded arts generate value for the wider public?
  • what is arts funding for? What are the arts for in a modern liberal democracy?  
  • In the context of limited available resources, what should be supported, and to what degree?
  • When savings need to be made, where in the ecosystem is it less damaging to cut? 
  •  WHO GETS TO DECIDE?

As the choice of capital letters show, the last question is a central one. After all, every judgement of cultural value made in an arts funding context entails complex power relationships, not only between the funders and the cultural sector, but also within the cultural sector itself, which is far from being a cohesive and homogeneous entity, but in fact contains a range of very different organisations.

When Adrian Lochhead (@adrianlochhead) offered this post for me to share on The #culturalvalue Initiative platform, I was thrilled as it addresses quite a few of the questions I have outline above, and makes an impassionate case for a radical rethink of the very rationale of the distributive principle that is at heart of the current system. Adrian himself acknowledges that there are choices to be made when further cuts loom large, and that what he advocates for is one particular set of choices among a number of possibilities. What other choices are there? How can they be justified?

May the real, essential debate begin!!

***

If it wasn’t a crisis before it is now.

The 10% local authority cut by central government is a disaster for arts organisations up and down the country, but rather than being helpless this is something that the Arts Council can respond to and must.  If not decades of work will be thrown away and may not be replaced for decades to come, if ever.  But there is an alternative strategy.

As the Arts Council ponders how to deliver the 5% reduced funding (on top of the 30% over the last few years) that has been settled on by the DCMS for 2015/16 (and onwards), the real double whammy for arts organisations comes with the subsequent information that local authorities face a 10% cut in the £21bn they currently receive from central government.

On the one hand ACE has been talking about the inevitability that it will reduce the number of arts organisations that it funds on three year funding plans (the National Portfolio Organisations or NPOs), on the other hand many of these organisations are also funded by local authorities.  Despite the Culture Minister, Maria Miller’s claims in the Guardian that the arts are in good hands with this government and that the sector is being unnecessarily gloomy, the potential for devastation across the arts nationally is very real.

In recent times local authorities in Somerset, Newcastle, Westminster have all either threatened or delivered 100% cuts to the arts, and while these stand-out examples grab the headlines how many others have been steadily reducing their support? – I know mine has, we are small but I’m guessing that we are a litmus example – 40% less funding than three years ago…

Local Authorities have statutory items that they are obliged to support eg. roads, education etc, and many of them ‘obviously’ do not regard art and culture as vital – and even when they do see the social and economic benefit of the culture sector they can feel that they simply have no choice but to cut back on things that they don’t have to fund (Chief Executives’ salaries aside).

It is therefore of the utmost importance that the Arts Council engages with this very real situation and takes strategic decisions about how it is going to deliver its own funds and then communicate this absolutely clearly with the LAs.

The first issue before the communicating of course will be what ACE decides to do.  The hard-core of the current situation is that there is little wiggle room left.  In the last few years the Arts Council has seen its funds reduced by 30% (that’s before this new reduction of 5%) and has managed that by re-organising the Arts Council itself, reducing costs and also reducing the National Portfolio of funded organisations.

So now that we are down to the knuckle it might be best if ACE makes its decision about how to deliver this new round of cuts/redefining the Portfolio in direct relationship to the situation with the local authorities.  I’m not here to criticise my colleagues at ACE but the last time this happened the whole LA thing didn’t really get dealt with strategically, it was all a bit made up as we went along.  A strategic decision has to be made, a clear decision to be communicated; there are not enough ACE officers left to be negotiating with hundreds of councils, and Harriet Harman hasn’t the time to get involved in all of them (she did in Newcastle) and let’s face it she ain’t going to be so welcome in say Chichester or any of the other blue or yellow coloured ones.

 

The reality is this:

  • Many, many, of the current ACE funded organisations – the NPOs – are also supported by their local authorities;
  • ACE funding is a significant factor in leveraging that local authority support (this support is not always easy to garner, bearing in mind that local authorities have all sorts of political hues, agendas, axes to grind);
  • If the Arts Council withdraws support from regional NPOs local authority support will almost certainly also be withdrawn, PAY ATTENTION!! these local authorities are already looking for where to deliver cuts, ACE withdrawal will be a certain signal to cut;
  • Without funding by ACE and local authority most organisations, if not all, will quickly cease to operate;
  • The local authority funding may take years to re-materialise, if ever;
  • The portfolio and the national arts ecology will change irrevocably; years of work by dedicated, skilled, passionate workers, in scores of organisations will come to an end.

The argument coming from the sector and the Arts Council over recent times has been to emphasise the arts contribution to the economy as well as its more obvious social and even more obvious creative and cultural impact.  The mantra is that the arts contribute richly to local and national economies, are responsible for generating many more pounds in the economy than is invested in it, the arts are therapeutic – from the ‘feelgood factor’ to the, well, therapeutic benefits of arts in healthcare, the arts are a vital educational resource, an inspiration etc etc; sometimes it seems we forget that it is simply a bloody good thing to have some bloody good art and culture (Johnny and Joanie Foreigner are full of admiration for our culture by the way).

So it would seem that if these arguments for culture are TRUE then the Arts Council is faced with a no-brainer: the wider NPO must be protected.  To do anything other than seek to protect as many NPOs in as many parts of the realm would simply be wrong and counter to all of the arguments that ACE itself has put forward?

Let’s hope so.  However, thus far ACE has said that a reduction in the number of National Portfolio Organisations is inevitable – and ACE means scores of reductions, not just one.

But is it?

This is a matter of choice.

There are 696 organisations in the national portfolio.

I have an old Elvis Costello lyric running around my head, it goes:

“One day you’re gonna have to face a deep dark truthful mirror, and it’s going to tell you things that I still love you too much to say….”.  It’s time for the mirror.

In this next bit you might have to forgive what looks like shouting.  It isn’t shouting, it’s my attempt at emphasis of some big issues that we have to decide about with regard to what we want for OUR LIVES:

  • FIVE of the National Portfolio receive 25% of the Arts Council’s funds between them – £95million (NINETY FIVE MILLION POUNDS – PER ANNUM) in subsidy is shared between the London centric big five (I won’t name them, you can have a guess, you need to use the word Royal three times and Opera twice).
  • As a ‘visual’ comparison £95m would fund 2375 (TWO THOUSAND THREE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY FIVE) organisations at ACE’s lowest level NPO (£40k per year) like mine, (we do just masses of stuff); or it would fund 633 (SIX HUNDRED AND THIRTY THREE) organisations at ‘the average’ £150k per year (eg Walk the Plank who deliver massive celebratory shows across the UK and Europe – they have just opened the Derry/Londonderry City of Culture with the acclaimed, inclusive, accessible, celebratory ‘Return of Colmcille’ see a video of just part of it here - they receive £150k pa).

The ACE portfolio has been urged to be sustainable and up and down the country so many are desperately seeking to be so with limited margins – and succeeding (how? – because they are brilliant/amazing/desperate to deliver to their communities and their shortage of funding makes them ever more imaginative by necessity – a great deal of begging and borrowing goes on – they don’t for instance have a ‘Head of Boots’ like the RSC).  How sustainable are the big organisations that need such huge funding?  What do such huge amounts of money actually do?  Every expensive purchase or bespoke make at the elite end must be measured against projects not happening in a small or needy community or social sector or schools elsewhere.  In the case of the Royal Opera House it was reported that its top two salaries added up to £1m between them and that 14 staff were paid more than £100k per year.  Is this affordable?  Is it appropriate in the subsidised sector?  Is it desirable?  Is this what ACE funding is for?

How do we measure the cultural value of these things – for we must?  Who decides?  Is it now time to end the status quo – because we simply can’t afford it and/or because it doesn’t give us what we want or should have?   As Charlotte Higgins wrote in the Guardian recently “it is unclear whether the Arts Council has the appetite for the inevitable public relations fallout should they cut off a large, famous, well-connected arts organisation to salvage the grass roots”.   At a recent ACE meeting of the northern National Portfolio Organisations in York this was all referred to as “the elephant in the room”, and it was also pointed out that the larger subsidy dependent organisations were also the more likely to be able to attract that philanthropy/corporate sponsorship that has been encouraged by the government.

We can’t keep not looking in that mirror.  The choice now is between the huge money to a few versus losing organisations up and down the country and in the process losing all of the ‘culture is important, and economically and socially essential’ points that have been made and understood by local authorities and communities over the past 30-40 years, and that could take decades to re-grow.

The purpose of this article is not to argue against the work of anyone.  It is to point out there are choices to be made.  It’s not me who said we can’t have both.  But it seems we can’t.

So which do we go for?

 

BIO

Adrian Lochhead is Director of Eden Arts, a National Portfolio Organisation based in England’s most rural District – Eden in Cumbria.  Eden Arts delivers arts projects both in Eden District and beyond. Their work revolves around stimulating creative activity in rural communities that often have no access to a bus service never mind an arts centre.  This means being inventive, using online resources (and generally running around like mad things).  Eden Arts is both a connector and a stimulator as well as being a producer. It works across all arts from commissioning public art to creating festivals to running an outdoor cinema and a rural cinema scheme to running a new writing programme for rural writers.  Eden Arts is embedded in its community and continuously seeks to show its social, economic and creative worth through being aspirational and providing leadership.  Before becoming Director at Eden Arts Adrian worked as a performer and writer and director in theatre in many parts of the UK, including rep and years with old school TIE companies.

www.edenarts.co.uk

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