Interesting times for challenging the status quo

By Charlotte Jones, Chief Executive, ITC

Who could have predicted that the Comprehensive Spending Review would culminate in a standstill budget for Arts Council England plus £10 million annually for specifically earmarked arts projects?

Even more extraordinary is the statement from George Osborne that:

‘One of the best investments we can make as a nation is in our extraordinary arts, museums, heritage, media and sport.
£1 billion a year in grants adds a quarter of a trillion pounds to our economy – not a bad return. So, deep cuts in the small budget of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport are a false economy.’

In previous spending rounds the arts sector has almost suspected that it just crept in under the radar because it is so small – indeed that has even been one of Arts Council England’s ‘main arguments’ in making the case for the Arts in the past. It is unusual for the sector to be given such positive recognition and attention.

The effectiveness of advocacy and lobbying by the arts sector has been strong due to a co-ordinated approach and active involvement by a wide range of organisations on a local and national level. Arts organisations of all scales engaged with their MPs who took strong messages back to cabinet colleagues. Practitioners mobilised their audiences and participants and joined with colleagues in What Next? Chapters across the country. Apparently the message was received and understood – the value of arts and culture is recognised.

Such strongly expressed support for Arts and Culture is unprecedented from a Chancellor of the Exchequer – it is almost bewildering and, inevitably, people are already asking ‘Where’s the catch?’

Clearly the biggest area of concern for all of us must be the £6.1 billion cut to local authority spending. Local authorities are the ‘unsung heroes’ of arts funding - particularly for smaller, grassroots organisations reaching disadvantaged and disenfranchised groups of people in their communities. Arts and culture is not a statutory area of funding for local authorities. With the rising cost of adult social care and a further huge reduction in their budgets many local authorities will have little option but to look to non-statutory areas for potential cuts. Local authorities have been given additional powers to raise revenue through council tax and business rates but this will be of far greater benefit to authorities in wealthier parts of the country. The very areas where need is greatest will have the least capacity to raise revenue and are likely to suffer worst from the cuts.

Sir Peter Bazalgette (ACE Chair) has said:

‘We now need to understand the settlement for Local Authorities. Our team across the country will be having place by place conversations. We cannot replace their revenue but we’ll keep investing where Local Authorities keep faith with culture.’

It would be tempting, at this time, for Arts Council England and its portfolio of regularly funded organisations to sit back, breathe a sigh of relief and quietly continue to deliver the status quo. That is, of course, exactly the opposite of what needs to happen. Having worked effectively in solidarity leading up to the spending review the arts sector needs to continue that cooperation and work even more ambitiously and inclusively going forward.

ACE needs to act boldly and imaginatively in delivering its stated aims of greater diversity, rebalancing cultural provision across the country and achieving ‘Great Arts for All’.

In my view ACE have already cut (or ceased to core fund) too many smaller arts organisations. These organisations tend to reach communities of people not easily reached by mainstream, large-scale, metro centric arts provision. Rural touring, schools touring, participatory programmes, new young companies are continually at risk of missing out in ACE funding decisions. It seems illogical – they meet need, are great value for money, do a lot with a little and reach deep in to communities.

I have been very concerned by the John Knell paper presented at the ‘No Boundaries’ conference. It appears to advocate greater investment in large organisations to build their capacity in the vain hope of that benefit trickling down to smaller organisations and emerging artists – Why does he think this will work? It never has in the past. There is too much Arts Council investment locked into unwieldy, inflexible structures already. There needs to be more attention given to art which engages and encourages participation, more opportunity created for new practitioners to enter the profession and innovate, more support available for organisations who (with relatively small resources) reach and impact on the lives of a wider range of people.

A few weeks ago ITC held an interesting Touring Forum hosted by the wonderful CAST in Doncaster. About 40 touring companies gathered from across the UK and, amongst other things, discussed the nature of risk in touring and how it can be more creatively and effectively shared between venues and companies. It’s an age old problem that will only get more acute if the wealth gap between organisations is widened even further. Producers and Presenters need to be able to negotiate on a more level playing field and focus together on delivering the best outcomes for inclusion, diversity, audience experience and engagement. Public funding can facilitate that relationship and encourage strategic risk-taking and innovation. But if all the money and power is in the hands of one institution that relationship cannot develop well. Generosity and creative collaboration are the first casualties when the gradient gets steeper and the ground gets rockier.

Bizarrely the new Theatre Tax Relief shows a recognition at Government level that investment in the arts needs to happen at the point of production and furthermore an explicit acknowledgement of the importance of touring

Make good work and get it to people as widely as possible! Keep creating and keep moving!