Signals as to where the axe will fall:machinery to support arts education and outreach

The campaigns must go on and the British public must show that we value the arts.  But there are already smoke signals which point to where the axe will fall.  The signs emanating from Jeremy Hunt and from the Arts Council of England follow twin clear lines Hunt trailed in January at the RSA: the first: cuts to administration, management, intermediate agencies and  miscellaneous 20th century machinery; the second:  enable creative and artistic experiences to happen through digital technology.  Today’s subject is education and associated access, participation and inclusion in the arts.

Public subvention for the arts in the UK is largely targeted at achieving excellence and (demographically inclusive) participation,  in the belief that, left to a free market, there would not be enough of either of these.  Over the last ten or twenty years, the participation agenda has become more prominent. Sometimes the tail has been in danger of wagging the dog, as DCMS has passed on to the Arts Council, and the Arts Council has passed on to individual arts organisations, specific targets for increasing the diversity of participants year on year.   This sort of target chasing has some advantages as it encourages arts organisations to attempt to attract the sort of individuals who are generally less likely to engage in the arts – those from black and minority ethnic groups, the disabled, the poorly educated and the poor.  But while some need the stick to strive for diversity, almost everyone involved in the arts is passionate about the need to engage young people.  The audience and artists of the future duh.

 Many arts organisations are evangelical about all types of education, outreach and community work.  Engagement in arts activities has been proven time and time again to improve individual and community lives.  But on the whole, this engagment is severely restricted.  Arts organisations will undertake programmes when they have the money and only the largest tend to have enough to offer a full time programme.  Many arts organisations’ education and outreach work is grant-reactive, following a social work department or a health board’s dollar for a project where the instrumental benefits of arts engagement will deliver a social target.  Many of these projects involving hard-to-reach partipants,  are labour intensive and involve few participants and work out to be very expensive activity.  One -off projects in schools likewise have great benefits for those who happen to be in the particular class in the particular school which gets the artist this year, but not for the 99% who are not so lucky. The majority of education and outreach projects run by arts organisations are very worthy and highly beneficial to the participants but a hard look across the country at long-term impact and value for money would likely challenge the costs in relation to the benefits. And across the board, these programmes have not made much of an inroad into broadening participation in the arts. 

Which is why people in the arts were delighted when Creative Partnerships was set up to deliver a more universal programme to embed creativity in schools. Set up by DCMS the programme was floated off to the new public intermediary Creative and Cultural Skills CCE with a dowry of about £38m.  CCE has evidenced the wide ranging impacts of embedding the arts, culture and creativity into the curriculum with the latest evidence it has gathered citing an economic impact of  £4 bn .

Both the universal approach of CCE and the piecemeal but important good work of arts organisations are under threat today. The Stage reports that CCE has been served notice of the end of its funding by ACE. Unpalatable but perhaps inevitable. While Creative Partnerships are well worth supporting by the public purse, its hard to justify why that £38m should com from severely constricted Arts Council England budgets.  

Meanwhile the same industry newspaper reports that  Jeremy Hunt has told theatres that they must resist axing their education and outreach programmes and move away from ‘tick box’ targets based around ethnic and social data to using digital media to promote wider access.

This is the first sally on arts funding.  As in all wars, winning depends on choosing your battles. The battles worth fighting are those which will support the artists and enable the creative experience.  Not about arts funding directly providing education.

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