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Arts Council cuts - the X Factor special

Will Gompertz | 12:00 UK time, Monday, 21 March 2011

Simon Cowell and Alan Davey do not look alike. The pop impresario's slender body is topped-off with a full head of dark hair that starts growing just above his eyebrows. Whereas the chief executive of Arts Council England is... well, as I say, they don't look alike.

But next week, Big Al gets to play at being Oh! Simon, in his very own version of X Factor, called Ex-Actor (or theatre, orchestra, gallery). He too will have a couple of cohorts. Dame Liz Forgan (Chair, Arts Council England) will take on Cheryl Cole's role as national treasure and Andrew Nairne (Director of Strategy, Arts Council England) will be the straight-talking Louis Walsh.

Obviously there are some differences in the format to avoid embarrassing accusations of plagiarism from Mr Cowell, but generally the idea is the same. A bunch of talented but vulnerable hopefuls give it their best shot in front of some informed but impartial judges, who will decide their fate. The judges' decision is final, there is no recourse, no debate, no second chance: you are either in or you are out.

Dame Liz Forgan


And just like the TV show, the sense of "jeopardy" is cranked up by using the old "musical chairs" formula; except this time it's not one chair being removed, but half of them. About 1,350 arts organisations across England have applied to receive a three-year funding agreement from Arts Council England. Roughly half of them will be refused and receive no money. Many of those that do receive a grant will be disappointed by the amount of money on offer. They will all find out by 8am next Wednesday 30 March.

It is a momentous occasion: the single biggest arts funding event this country has known since the Major government created the National Lottery. Its importance goes beyond who are the winners and losers, but points to the strategic thinking of the council.

Will they address what many see as an unacceptable inequality between the funding of London-based organisations and those in the regions? Will there be any high-profile casualties of poorly performing outfits? What will their criteria be for making the decisions made? Will they get it right?

I hope so. Alan Davey is a decent man who cares deeply about the organisation he is running and the arts sector in general. He has worked hard since becoming chief executive to add some rigour and accountability to the council and those that it funds. And he has done the hard yards; he's gone out there and met, listened to and encouraged arts institutions, local councils and central government. But now it is decision time, his moment of truth.

Ultimately leadership is not about being a good administrator or a good bloke; it's about judgement. Great leaders call it right, the duffers don't. Some have already privately questioned the process leading up to decision-day on Wednesday week.

Arts Council England appears to be attempting to achieve four goals in one process: to reduce the amount of arts organisations they fund, to bring previously un-funded organisations into the fold, to implement a more rigorous and accountable funding process, and to alter the way in which they fund organisations. That's a lot for one process.

And it might cause problems. Most of the arts organisations I have spoken to are asking for more money, not less, although they know the overall pot is reduced because of the government cuts. They tell me they have been encouraged to do so, in a way Oliver wasn't. Don't come to us with a begging bowl half way through the year, they have been advised - tell us what you really need. Frankly, that's like asking a racing driver how fast his car goes when really they should be saving fuel.

Oliver Twist


Some have also questioned the wisdom of trying to reduce their existing portfolio of regularly-funded organisations because of the government's cuts, while at the same time encouraging applications from companies that are new to the council. What was once a cutting exercise due to reduced government subsidy has become a strategic process brought about by the need to reform an outdated system. Cuts that could have been blamed squarely on government have become an Arts Council England initiative to reform the way it funds the arts. At least that's how the government is likely to spin it.

Few doubt that the council are trying to do the right thing, but maybe they're making life less than easy for themselves. At one time they were going to have to disappoint a hundred or so of the 750 organisations they regularly fund. But now with 1,350 applications, they are going to really upset 700-odd companies, plus many, many others who have put in for more money, only to be given less than they had before. A handful will get a bit more.

All of which leaves Arts Council England and Alan Davey in particular, quite exposed. He will have to have rock-solid rationale for each and every decision that is made. Meaningless platitudes such as "great art for everyone" will not wash. He will have to explain why one perfectly good theatre has had its funding withdrawn, while another equally good - but not obviously better - theatre is cut.

The criteria will need to be absolutely clear. Any ambiguity, any silly blandishments, and one of the many disaffected companies will launch the only weapon available to them - to question the whole process. And if that happens, well, it wouldn't be good...


  • Comment number 1.

    Unlike the X Factor, the task of the Arts Council in settling funding for the next three years really matters. Very many talented and hard-working people are about to lose their livelihoods. The UK will lose the vital contribution their work makes to taxation. Tourists will go elsewhere; good films won't be made; novels that would have endured well beyond the life of this arrogant, foolish government will never be written.

    Of course organisations are asking for the money they need in order to be viable. What would be the point of asking for an amount that would mean closure? Half-funding a theatre group, for example, which subsequently has to seek additional funding to continue, wastes public money in the administrative costs required to assess the further application. Better to get it right first time.

    And it also makes sense to invite new applications to compete for the available resources alongside currently-funded groups. If a new group would do more with the cash, why lock them out? The point, after all, is to fund the very best whatever resources are there.

    Alan Davey is relying on the Arts Council's art form administrators to make these choices. Calling them administrators makes them seem like dreary pen-pushing bureaucrats. But of course they are individuals who have all worked for years in their own areas of expertise; they care enormously about the actors, directors, theatres, musicians, artists, and writers whose work is about to be dismissed. And they too will shortly be threatened by redundancy given the absurd slashing of the Arts Council's administrative budget. These experts are the basis of fair decision making and of the “rock-solid rationale” that Will Gompertz rightly says is needed for each funding choice. If you cut them, you destroy the Arts Council's ability to administer public funds. And that, of course, would mean the beginning of the end of the Arts Council.

  • Comment number 2.

    Not such a fair comparison as the X-Factor makes a huge profit. Not something that can seemingly be said about the groups looking for funding.

    I wonder if they've thought of dropping funding for anything over a certain size and only funding grass roots organisations as it were?

  • Comment number 3.

    This piece was working nicely until its inevitable self-deflation at the very end. In what sense is 'question[ing] the whole process' any kind of weapon? 'It wouldn't be good' isn't exactly helpful either. If the implied meaning is that too many complaints about the Arts Council's decisions may lead to its eventual abolition, you can bet that whatever body replaces it will have less power and less money to dish out. It's a crafty win-win situation for the pro-cuts lobby: either accept that there's less funding, or bring down the Arts Council and see its successor providing, er, less funding.

  • Comment number 4.

    This exercise could oblige us to examine the idea of the state funding of the arts - but not in the simple terms of a public versus private model, or even in terms of the value of an Arts Council, but rather in terms of the vulnerability of client organisations to political and fiscal forces, and agendae set elsewhere, sometimes at several degrees remove. As clients of an arts council - any arts council - arts organisations are required to submit to that council's criteria for funding and are unable to define their own criteria, which will in turn affect and influence any creative trajectory. (Initiating or skewing projects to fit funding guidelines is a practice recognisable to anyone who has worked in the arts over the last thirty years.) This is no better within private models of funding. In almost all cases the capriciousness experienced by organisations is not significantly different from those experienced by Renaissance artists operating at the whim of popes.

    Of course the public money involved requires an accountable system, and there will always be periods with either more or less funding available in relative terms, but I think concern about what is created is often lost in the present model. An examination of where and by whom the agenda is set would seem to be a more valuable exercise in the longer term.

  • Comment number 5.

    There is a further complication for arts organisations too, Will. Many arts organisations draw some of their funding from local authorities in addition to the Arts Council. The company I work for, Ex Cathedra (a choir and early music ensemble), receives less than 20% of its income each year from public funding, but some of this comes from the Arts Council and some from Birmingham City Council, bodies which endeavour to work together to fund art in Birmingham.

    However, this means that decisions announced by the Arts Council next week could be undermined by the further cuts in Birmingham City Council's arts budget which were ratified last week for 2012-13 and 2013-14.

    Arts organisations which have already faced substantial cuts to their 2011-12 budgets might be wounded further with a reduced Arts Council funding settlement next week, only to face even more damaging local authority cuts later this year.

  • Comment number 6.

    Arts Council Wales and Scotland are cutting the money available to core organisations by just 4%. England is really suffering. The real news story will be what gets cut and where it gets cut. Currently about a quarter of funded organisations are participatory but get less than a couple of percent of the funding. The weighting towards London is totally disproportionate to the population even with the ‘tourism’ argument accounted for. I know that once or twice Mr Gompertz has ventured out of the capital but I’ve never seen a report on the really vital grass roots work being done in the participatory arts sector. When the announcement is made on Wednesday it will be really disappointing to hear from the RSC, the ROH and the Tate without hearing from Charnwood Arts, Spare Tyre, Cheshire Dance, Access Space or mailout to name but a tiny few.

  • Comment number 7.

    Then in walked the magnificent seven and everything went straight to HD.

  • Comment number 8.

    If only it were the X Factor at least then the views of our patrons and participants may have carried some weight. This has been a tortuous process where many national companies are through to the final without singing a note. While smaller and emerging companies have been given a dodgy song choice. I hope there are surprises and some of the favourites fail to hit the top "C". But as usual it will be the provinces that loose out. That beating heart music is getting louder and some of us will be going home. Remember its not the value of our work its the cost that matters



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