Arts Council

Nic Green's Trilogy

The arts are about more than the simplistic and somewhat crass measurement of bums on seats.  Quantity does not always equate to quality and there must be experiment and innovation, risks and some failures in a rich and diverse cultural ecology.  But with a public mission to engage the many, ACE should expect its investment across the portfolio to deliver additional attendances in return for additional investment. And the evidence is that it does.

The Arts Council of England’s report on its Regularly funded organisations: Key data from the 2009/10 annual submission contains a mine of useful information, showing activities, attendances, staffing and finances from all its RFOs showing variances by artform, region and size of organisation.  Most interesting is the data for the last three years, which shows trends from 2007 to 2010.

ACE has increased its investment from £336m to £372m (+11%).  Activities/events have increased by 10% over this period and attendances have increased by 26%, according to the report on a constant sample of respondents. This includes a wide variation by region, with London and Yorkshire showing the largest increases in attendance and the East and West Midlands showing the greatest decline.

The 11% increase in ACE investment worked in tandem with an increase of 12% from local authorities, supporting RFOS to increase their earned income by 16%, more than compensating for reductions in private donations and other investment.

The point of any major piece of data analysis like this is how it is used to inform decision making. For ACE, making hard decisions now on future investment, this data will inform specific interventions by region and by art forms.  But delving into the detail shouldn’t obscure the key message: increased public investment in core organisations delivers more art for more people.


Poetic Licence: Poetry on entrance to Scottish Parliament

The final player in the UK’s national cultural purseholders showed its hand last week as the Northern Ireland Assembly published its draft budget which includes a reduction to the Department of Arts and Culture of 9.4% over four years at the same time as increasing funds to the film industry. Each of the UK nations and administration has published their budget figures using different time frames and levels of detail. And in making their points about the significance of these figures, each cultural agency and government has described the cuts from particular angles using selected statistics. The choice of statistics illustrates the arguments but don’t necessarily chime with the published facts.  

Each of the administrations and governments in Westminster, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Stormont have a different way of describing, organising and managing the arts, culture, heritage and the creative industries and none of the countries’ cultural budgets contains the same elements as another.  For example, the Welsh and Gaelic languages are within the two nations’ cultural budget, in Wales culture is grouped under heritage, in England its under Culture Media and Sport which also has a major UK remit as well as the particularly English Arts Council, and so on.

Some of the governments have flexed their biceps in a muscular illustration of the arms’ length principle, notably in Wales and brutally in England, where the Arts Council as well as DCMS and others have been put on a crash diet to drastically reduce its corpulent body.

Some have eliminated capital spending while others have ringfenced flagship projects like the V & A in Dundee. Some talk about cuts in real terms while some describe them in nominal terms.  Hence ACE describes its cuts as close to 30% in real terms over the next four years while the Welsh Heritage Minister compares them in the nominal term of 20% – both to make a particular point.

There are elections next May in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland but its only in Scotland, where we have a minority SNP administration, that a budget has been set for one year only. Therefore the only figures which can be compared across the four administrations is that of the one year budget for 2011 – 2012  and for the arts councils only in England, Wales and Scotland as the Northern Ireland Arts Council draft budget has not yet been announced.

According to the published figures for the budgets, the arts budget in Scotland is down by 10% but has been presented by both Culture Minister and the new body Creative Scotland as a standstill budget. Creative Scotland having already achieved efficiency savings and having taken on a role across the creative industries, has held on to its ‘core’ budget of £35m but the overall arts budget is down some 10%.

Welsh Heritage Minister, Alun Ffred Jones, stated “The relative priority accorded to arts funding recognises the important contribution which arts bodies can make .. the reduction of 4.6% in arts funding in Wales over the next three years compares favourably with the UK Government’s announced cash reduction to the Arts Council of England of approximately 20% over four years”.

The published figures for 2011 -2012 show ACE down 14% and Welsh arts down 4%.

The published statistics bear only a limited comparison. But what can be compared is the way in which governments and administrations and arts councils and all describe the value of the arts and the significance of the cuts.


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.

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.

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.

Artists operate in a delicately balanced economy, where it can be very hard to make a living from artistic endeavour.  That is why public sector subvention is so critical, through financial instruments such as tax exemption, bursaries and grants.

But as public expenditure gets smaller and smaller, artists and artistic enterprises are now being squeezed so hard they are squealing.  In Ireland, the end to artists tax exemption is one of a range of cuts on the table.  In Britain, Tracey Emin is threatening to leave the UK if (and when?) we have to put the taxes up to 50%.

Public subvention in only one part of the triangle as the economy of the arts is also dependent on the forces of earned income- through sales, box office and the like and  private giving  – sponsorship, corporate and individual giving.

Unsurprisingly, corporate and private sponsorship is well down on the recent fatter years.  And now, the box office is beginning to dive in many theatres.  Although its too blunt to divide theatre into ‘entertainment’  (escapist, fun, easy) and ‘art’ (difficult, through-provoking, poetic, political),  West End theatre is flourishing while others are struggling including London’s Tricycle Theatre.  It receives £ 3/4m from ACE but, despite an additional £361k from ACE’s Sustain Fund, the Theatre is reportedly struggling because audiences are staying away from political or ‘art’  theatre and because of the drop in charitable donations.  This is a story which is unfolding across the British Isles.

We need to preserve the artistic capability to survive through recession.  We need to support artists in our communities, whether these are local, regional or national.  And that means that public funders must make hard choices.  They need to choose who and what to support, recognising they can’t support everyone.  The Arts Council of England is investing £40m through its Sustain fund and so far this is largely to support the most established of arts organisations from the Royal Opera House, the Halle Orchestra to Yorkshire Sculpture Park.. But the Tricycle story signals that this may not be enough and so funders will be forced to be ever more discerning about who to put into the lifeboats and who to leave to sink or swim, through changing their programme, merging, or other innovations which cost less.

We also need strong leadership and powerful advocacy.  In Ireland, the National Campaign for the  Arts  campaigning against cuts proposed by An Bord Snip and the Commission on Taxation, has evinced strong support from business leaders and artists, who confidently express the value of the arts and artists, including their contribution to reputation, employment, tourism, the broader creative economy and the all important national psyche.

What is critical about this is the championing of art and artists and expressing the high value that artists have for our societies, whether or not this is recognised through tax exemption or financial rewards.  As we move away from a value system which is based entirely on money, artists can take the lead.

Curve Leicester

Photographs : Will Pryce/Arcaid. Courtesy Rafael Viñoly Architects courtesy

The Arts Council of England has published its Assessment of the impact of the additional £100m plus it invested in theatres from 2003 -2007. Responding to a detailed report  by consultants Anne Millman and Jodi Myers,  Barbara Matthews, ACE’s Director of Theatre Strategy focuses on ‘issues we can do something about’.  These include those issues which have recurred over the decades – do something about touring, show leadership, improving the connection with others and sorting out some of the grants systems and processes.  And these  include the old chestnut of short term instrumental funding for various initiatives which arts organisations have complained about for years.

The detailed findings are divided into two parts. -what people in the business think and what the evidence shows.  The qualitative assessment celebrates the confidence and energy of the theatre sector in the light of the additional investment and the improvements in production values and work for young people.  It also points out, while the world of theatre has changed fairly radically over the last few years, with less and less of the work taking place in theatre buildings and with new collaborative forms,  the sector as a whole has not really embraced the digital age.

The quantitative assessment viewed in isolation makes scary reading:  A comparison of a subset of 74 theatres shows that, over the 4 years 02/03  to 06/07:

  • staff increased by over 50%
  • the number of performances increased by some 50% BUT
  • audiences overall were static at best, and remain lacking in diversity
  • therefore the average number attending each performance fell

The subsidy per attendance is not shown but will have increased by a significant margin, given that the costs per performance have increased significantly and less people have attended each performance.

The total costs of the investment include:

  • the additional £25m pa for the 4 years
  • grants for the arts
  • ‘managed funds’  -instrumental specific initiatives
  • capital projects (£303m for theatres)
  • stabilisation and recovery programmes

Plus the additional machinery, the audience development agencies and one off projects. And this is Arts Council investment – it does not include local authority subsidy.

A crude analysis of ‘value for money’ of the extra funding in itself  could not validate the success of the extra millions.

Moving forward though, we need to recognise the way that 21st theatres have evolved.  Its less about the simple acts of putting on performances in the theatre for audiences to attend. An A list theatre – a strategically significant and highly funded building based company, not only will be extending the form of the art but also the reach and collaboration with audiences.  Theatre takes place more and more outside of the auditorium.  Regional theatres have a rich and pivotal role to play within their communities.

The current measures of success for public investment in these theatres are based on the 20th century model of theatre, average attendance and the like.  In addition, public funders look for measures to demonstrate achievement of instrumental objectives, diversity etc.

We need to overhaul the system of metrics used to weigh success.  Our A list 21st century theatres need to be trusted to vision, plan and deliver the best theatre and creative experiences for their communities in and out of the buildings, collaboratively and digitally.

The extra millions have created a strong base of well funded, well staffed, confident, capable theatres in buildings fit for purpose, led by highly experienced and trained leaders.  Surely its time now to let them take the lead and determine their own metrics.

ACE commits to showing leadership and is consulting on its plans for a theatre strategy. Lets hope this includes light touch funding for the A list theatres, with maybe five years of funding provided on the basis of a set of agreed outcomes and measures of success agreed by all parties at the outset.