Synchronised support for the arts, culture and creative industries -without too much splashing

synchonised swimming bejing 2008

Those of us in the arts and cultural community are in the vanguard of change as we tip over from the noughties into the next decade. The climactic changes of the first decade of the new millennium swept us up, sucked us in and tossed us about in tempests, new waves and whirlwinds creating massive new opportunities. The internet and technological advances in communication have changed fundamentally our engagement in creative experiences and our ability to collaborate. New platforms and interactivity have unleashed more multifaceted creative experiences and enterprises. Against this,  the collapse of the holy cow of ‘financial services’ and the sudden shrinkage of our economy has not only severely reduced the cash in public coffers for years to come but has forced a fundamental reappraisal of the value of  the arts, culture and creativity by the politicians whom we elected to lead us.

And this has led inexorably to tuggings of the rugs underneath the arts and cultural edifices which we have built up over the last 50 years.  Some of the tugs on the rugs have been gentle, with a raft of discretionary projects across the British Isles where major cultural institutions sit round the table and look at sharing services.  Some have been full frontal assaults, like the Irish  An Bord Snip report targeting Culture Ireland and the Irish Film Board.  This, along with other cuts to the arts was seen off by a brilliantly mobilised National Campaign for the Arts which, unlike the UK permanent organisation, was a collaborative campaign involving artists speaking from the heart and armed by evidence of economic impact, politicians and Facebook .   But more attacks are to come.  With political power in the balance, politicians are vying to be the toughest on the public sector, on a competitive crusade to ‘simplify’ the public sector, reduce the number of quangos, cut any pay and benefits seen to be excessive in the current climes and to make sure that our cash gets into front line services.

As we head into 2010, we may expect a Conservative government in the UK which is likely, according to Ed Vaizey, to target the Arts Council of England for at the very least a further reduction in its costs. ACE has already begun to dismantle its substantial regional machinery and the BFI and UK Film Council are already looking to merge in order to achieve the ‘efficiencies’ sought by the current government.  More than that, strategists recognise that its time to use the opportunities of web collaboration, and to reduce the costs and size of complex machinery and streamline support to artists, creative enterprises and participants and consumers. This could mean smaller cross – sectoral agencies, like Creative Scotland.  And in England it could mean a drastic reduction or even dismantling of regional intermediaries.

At the turn of the century the  English regional cultural machinery was at its peak, with regional screen agencies, regional arts councils, multiple local authorities, regional development agencies as well as audience development agencies and the like, all populated by public servants and paid for by the public purse.  And often working together through regional cultural consortia, also staffed by public servants, and the like. Those were in the past days of plenty and before the internet was harnessed for collaboration.  So its logical that  collaboration across the arts, culture and creative industries might be supported more effectively -cheaper on administration and more on the arts – this decade.  Its all a bit uncomfortable for those who could change things as they are the public servants with public sector terms and conditions who have the most to lose.

But things have changed big time over the last 30 years.  30 years ago the arts were thought of narrowly, as traditional, top down even elitist activities for the few.  Three decades of investment in activity, infrastructure and research and advocacy work have changed not only the perception but the reality. State support for the arts, culture and creativity is understood by all political parties in the British Isles as being an essential investment in our cultural identity, creative lives, community cohesion and in our global competitiveness.

State support for the arts, culture and creativity is understood by all political parties in the British Isles as being an essential investment in our cultural identity, creative lives, community cohesion and in our global competitiveness. So its time to stop splashing and take  serious action to best to support art, artists and creative experiences in this internet age.

Perhaps its about more effective agencies – a single screen agency, a smaller arts council. Intermediaries between government policy and the sector are required to make judgements, administer funds, champion the sector and research, develop and innovate.

In Scotland, the new agency Creative Scotland has the potential to be fit for purpose for 2010 and beyond with a remit across the arts, culture and creative industries, a broker, advisor, champion and investor, leaner than its two antecedent agencies Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen.  Its had a long gestation and the benefit of many influencing its final form as  governments, culture ministers, boards, civil servants and directors have changed.  Assuming a safe passage through the Scottish Parliament, a board and CEO can be appointed at last and then change can begin.

Creative Scotland, arts councils and other cultural intermediaries are all faced with similar challenges and opportunities, to get more support to the sector at less cost, to be more strategic and fleeter of foot and to collaborate continuously with other partners – and all in the context of politicians determined to reduce the cost of the public sector.  So why not make our cultural intermediaries even leaner and contract out more and more to the independent sector or regional or local agencies, creative organisations or social enterprises?  Like Channel 4 commissioning programmes or like the licence to Creative and Cultural Skills to provide strategic leadership and support in their sector?

That  would mean even less of us with final salary pensions and other benefits, but more transparency and accountability,  better value for  tax payers and more in tune with the majority of arts, culture and creative workers out there.

  1. in answer to the question “So why not make our cultural intermediaries even leaner and contract out more and more to the independent sector or regional or local agencies…” I would say there is a point at which this becomes nonsensical – Channel 4 commissions producers, not another level of commissioners (with the exception of the odd devolved scheme like 3 minute wonders) It would create additional transation costs and administrative complextity to no obvious end if, for example, Scottish Screen/Creative Scotland, were to subcontract another agency to e.g. to take over running script and project development or feature film funding. In any case it already devolves quite a bit though supporting production company slates which in turn commission writers, umbrella producers etc. At the tiny scale of the arts sector (compared to e.g. socal care) further subdivding ‘purchasing’ is only likely to reduce the resource availabe to the ‘end user’ and increase the number of gatekeepers.

  2. agreed there could be a point beyond which this could be counterproductive Robin but I think there is a great deal of scope for improvement before then. We need to maintain a sustainable ecology which includes independent/ SMEs and local and regional arts organisations and not keep all the resources in the public sector intermediaries. This is especially true when public finances are reduced.
    Less gatekeepers and more curators and supporters

    • I think theres a deeper questio luring here, quite an interesting one in fact, which is ‘when does a curator become a gatekeeper or a bureaucrat’? To some extent all of the levels you cite are gatekeepers – curators, theatre directors etc selectively valorise some work over other work, just as funders do. Both exercise aesthetic taste/ascribe cultural value. Why do we categorise these as qualitatively different activities when the difference is perhaps only quantitative? one level could be considered strategic (=national) the other tactical (=local) but there is a fundamental congruence between the two and the fundamental aregument between them is “pass more money down to us so that we can be the ones to choose between competing supplicants” This is fine if it doesnt create a peverse outcome but it doesnet make the devolved level any less of a gatekeeper – it creates a multiplicity of gates with small amounts of resources behind each. This can be a good thing in some sectors (e.g. publishing) but clearly not in an area like opera or feature film.

      • Q: when does a curator become a gatekeeper or a bureaucrat’?

        A: when they dont care

        The concept of a 21st century cultural curator surely has got to major on the caring and localised organisation and enabling as opposed to the guarding and doling out to ‘supplicants’

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