Arts Council England has published its response to the independent report Rebalancing our Cultural Capital, which last autumn showed how arts subsidy is heavily weighted in favour of London and against the regions (with 90% of government arts funding going to the capital).
In its most formal sense, This England: How Arts Council England uses its investment to shape a national cultural ecology is simply ACE’s response to the Commons Culture Select Committee’s call for evidence as it looks into the regional funding balance. Actually, it is a defiant affirmation of a policy that has been in place for four years and is scheduled to last for ten: ‘Great art and culture for everyone’, as it’s now called.
And this time it’s personal. ACE’s chief executive, Alan Davey, gives his own testament of growing up in Stockton-on-Tees where the arts ‘aren’t for the likes of us’: when their music venue was turned into a bingo hall, the lads had to go 50-odd miles to Newcastle to see the Rolling Stones. Once there he also found Shakespeare, the RSC on tour. ‘I can remember the confusion I felt when told by people who knew best that the study of classics was only of use if I wanted a job “in the art trade”,’ he says. ‘I remember being patronised and told not to bother. When I went to university and studied English, I felt I’d got away with something that wasn’t my due.’
His point is that his Arts Council is not a bureaucratic machine, doling out cash as if it’s London’s own ATM: there is passion in the thinking and the ‘Great art’ policy is more than a register of accounts. ‘As our strategy progresses, we will continue to balance our national portfolio ‒ funding excellence and producing the diversity of work that speaks to our audiences,’ Davey goes on. ‘We will invest in and release the energy of talent, wherever it is. We will need to make sure that the role of our investment in London is understood, and the national organisations located in our capital city reach outwards to the whole nation.’
So the goals of the 2010 ten-year strategy remain: excellence, opportunity, environmental sustainability, properly skilled leadership, and opportunities for children to be audiences. Yet ACE will do it, if it can, on 42% less funding than it had then ‒ and that’s if there are no more cuts in the meantime. The report doesn’t fling figures about ‒ there have been plenty of those, often contradictory ‒ but says simply that the lottery funding it confers has a 70/30 split in favour of the regions, and grant-in-aid a 60/40 in favour of London. And the regions have different characteristics which have to be considered, and local authority funding, which traditionally has been much more than ACE’s contribution (and is even now one and a half times as much) is being dramatically whittled down, with cuts of 100% in some municipalities.
The question will be: to what extent are the ‘flagship’ subsidised companies in London committed to helping to develop the arts in the regions? For Davey’s plan to work, the likes of the National Theatre, the Royal Opera House and the four London symphony orchestras have to be prepared to go into partnerships in the regions; some regional operations are not convinced that they are.
The next set of core funding grants will be announced in July and there will be winners and losers, as there always are, in London and the regions. But the pot is a not going to get any more full ‒ on the contrary ‒ and ACE knows that a commitment to continue to advance rather than stand still while funding things settle down is going to be hard to do.
‘Delivering enhanced outcomes in the short to medium term,’ This England says, ‘will have to be less about radical shifts in our national portfolio of organisations and more about what we ask of those we fund.’