Why the Arts Council should tender out its services


Brownie Guide Artist Badge 1960 - inspired by Brown Owl

As the Big Society supercedes the Welfare State as the defining political and socio-economic concept of our times, there will be radical changes in cultural policy and state support for the arts.  The mantra of excellence for all will be qualified: Excellence for all in the traditional art forms but only in those cases where local authorities choose to subsidise or where private individuals patronise the arts.  Support for the delivery of artistic experiences -helping to create the conditions for the meeting of, and transactions between, audiences and artists – will change dramatically. This zone used to be occupied by impressarios, patrons, art dealers, teachers, volunteers and Brown Owls and the like but now is held by an arts administration industry which has growed like topsy over the last thirty years  In a Big Society, there will be less benefits and services provided by a public sector populated by employees living in a protective state bubble.  That bubble has burst and the Arts Council  is having to make decisions fast as to how best to work with severely reduced funding at the same time as dealing with government directions which clearly demonstrate how short the arm of an arms length body really is. 

The Arts Council has prioritised its regularly funded organisations (RFOs) in the short term and signalled its intention to prioritise those working in creation and production which must be right.  While ACE has already cut Arts and Business and CCE as being two very large clients who are intermediary agencies, it currently core funds several other agencies involved in development of audiences, arts community support and the like.

Will the future see the stripping out of the multiple layers of the subsidised arts industry?  A blank page approach would allow ACE and others to be very focussed and efficient in procuring the delivery of development and other services it deemed to be strategically essential on a time limited basis.  Following the boards well-trodden by almost every other industry, the Arts Council should tender for services, encouraging entrepreneurs, independents, social enterprise companies and the like to provide innovative approaches to delivering these projects and programmes.

Or are the Arts Council and others caught up in a self-perpetuating system which looks after its own? Many of the development agencies were set up by the Arts Council and are run by ex-arts council or local authority employees who have developed their skills inside the system and enjoy terms and conditions reserved for the public sector. There are people and organisations out there with more arts experience, entrepreneurial skills, innovative ideas and a more flexible approach to remuneration. Some of these are found in existing front-line arts organisations – using the term to describe organisations working directly with artists rather than Ed Vaizey’s definition which equates to RFOs.  And there is also a new generation of creative entrepreneurs who havent’t been able to make a difference because of the log jam in the existing organisations.  There is a good chance that ACE could get a better deal for the sector as a whole by tendering for fixed term services.

But the default position is to keep it in the family.  Jeremy Hunt in his letter to ACE’s Chair, Dame Liz Forgan, directs ACE to develop the Cultural Leadership Programme into a ‘broader organisational development resource for culture and the creative industries’.  In turn ACE states that it will be asking its funded organisations to take on more responsibility for furthering its strategic goals, particularly in the areas of touring and audience development. The implication is that the existing funded organisations should be supported to change, rather than the right people or companies should be contracted to deliver the required services.

ACE is right to prioritise funding which will directly support art and artists and will need to ensure that the core arts ecology is sustained. It must use the current crisis to be radical in its approach to service delivery and open the doors to innovation and new blood and not close ranks.

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