Since the turn of the century and the new millennium, there have been more and more narratives written about why we need to reconfigure the cultural landscape and, in particular, why the arts council model is dead. All too often this reverts into that ancient ritual whereby those of us who are artists or in arts organisations attack those of us who are employed by the arts councils which is both unfair and hackneyed. Whatever we do, we have to get over ourselves and beyond this.
The struggle is over who controls resources. Those of us who are artists and in arts organisations are accused by those of us in arts councils of biting the hand that feeds them.(them/us/we)
But at the root of this there is a fundamental challenge to the concept that those of us in arts councils should have the power and resources to determine our activities and sometimes our futures. Why should those of us who work in the arts council hold the keys, why should they be gatekeepers? Why do we even need a gate?
There has been many a page written and printed by cultural commissions, policy makers and academic explaining why there needs to be change and a number of consistent threads emerge through this, from the work of the Cultural Commission in Scotland in 2004 to Tim Joss’ New Flow in 2009.
We have the benefit of all that work now and, through the lens of our clearer understanding about the impact of new technology on everything, we can boil down the need for change into three elements:
1. The rules of creative engagement have changed. The convergence of content and technology changes the way we contribute to, and encounter, creative experiences, creative products and creative processes.
artist and creative practicioners not only work in historic forms like theatre and painting but increasingly create in interactive and digital environments
participants in creative experiences now interact with the artist and content to personalise their experiences
2. The ways we can and will organise ourselves has changed. The new communications world means that the arts community can collobarate and network without the need to refer up through gatekeepers. There is now enormous potential to harness and share knowledge and expertise and to streamline delivery for the good of the whole community.
3. The importance and power of the arts and creativity to our society is recognised by government. All the work of the last century advocating the instrumental values in terms of social and economic impact has paid off. The arts and creativity are at the heart of society and are recognised now by government has being major economic and social drivers. Therefore structures need to reflect this.
The Arts Council Model
In referring to the Arts Council Model, I refer to a generic model, recognising that the model iself is continually restructured and reconfigured. Over the last 15 years, the Model, in different parts of the UK, has constantly been challenged, reviewed and restructured. The weakness of the Model is the crux of the issue. All commentators feel compelled to redesign it and often the suggestions are complex. Actually its much simpler.
The problem with the Model itself is that it combines both funding administration (reactive) and research and advocacy (proactive) which is not impossible but difficult. The majority of resources are tied up in the funding part of the Model and therefore the organisational characteristics tend to be those appropriate to a government grant giving agency. Most of the discontent about the arts councils over the years relate to how they perform their role as funding bodies and tends to overshadow the proactive development activity. The necessary ‘gatekeeping’ functions of grant giving tend to also be applied to the research and knowledge base held by arts councils and this annoys artists and others in the arts community.
So we have a model with intrinsic weaknesses. It works better in some parts of the world than others and that is largely to do with the particular operating environment. But the trend towards devising complex new structures to deal with this is not the answer. We need to consider the bigger picture, the impact and potential of the changes around us and collaborate on answers.