It’s begun. The new coalition government has made the first slashes into public expenditure, culture is not exempt and nor is the Arts Council of England. A 4% cut – or £19m on top of the £4m already cut this year is likely to be the forerunner of more to come. So how will ACE respond ? Having already gone through the pain and considerable expense of slimming and restructuring, reducing administration costs by £6m, ACE will hardly have the stomach to cut deeper into its own body. By implication, ACE is now the lean organisation it needs to be and hence it is now likely that cuts will be made to artists and arts organisations. But there are choices. The Arts Council could prioritise the core arts community, the people involved directly in making art and creating artistic experiences with audiences, and cut back on the peripheral for this next period. The peripheral includes the bulk of subsidiary development agencies and the Arts Council’s own initiatives, programmes and overheads attached to this stream. This would mean the Arts Council returning to its core purpose and relinquishing the role it has enjoyed during the fat years, that of being a ‘development agency’.
The Arts Council is widely understood to be a funding body, aligned to its purpose in the 1946 Royal Charter , “to develop and improve the knowledge, understanding and practice of the arts and to increase accessibility of the arts to the public ”. At some point over the last few years, the Arts Council restated its purpose as to ‘develop, promote and invest’ in the arts in England, presumably as a result of directions from DCMS, whose funding agreement with ACE sets out objectives including “To be an authoritative development agency”. To many in the arts community, this extended role looks like mission drift, and an argument for the large organisation ACE has become. All would agree that the investment role is core and most that the promotion role is pretty important, reflecting the aims set out in the Royal Charter. During the 90s and 00s the development role was important in building up capacity, infrastructure and resources through the capital lottery programme, leadership training and increasing skills and resources. But that was then and this is now. We now have the buildings, the organisations and the skills we need to support artists to make art and to engage with audiences complemented by the establishment of Creativity, Culture and Education (CCE) to stimulate creative engagement across the board. For the most part, we have a strong and confident professional arts sector clear about its ambitions, purpose and how to go about its business and one which is perfectly able to respond directly to any strategic priorities required by the Arts Council as the agency of government funding.
So should ACE be a ‘developer’ at times when public expenditure needs to contract? No, it should use its strategic powers and intelligence to determine what ‘development’ is truly essential and look to the core arts community to deliver it, devolve budgets to arts organisations and reduce short term initiatives.
Arts, culture and creativity are essential for the UK during this period of revaluation. So it is more important to focus, to fund artists and sustain the artistic eco-system than for public bodies to act as developers.
John Maynard Keynes set up the Arts Council: ‘to give courage, confidence and opportunity’ to artists and their audiences. At times like these, that will best be achieved by setting strategic priorities, and by championing and advocating for the arts not by delivering and funding a plethora of distracting development initiatives and their associated machinery.