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Arts Council funding shake-up

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Will Gompertz | 10:45 UK time, Thursday, 4 November 2010

The Arts Council England (ACE) announces today a transformation to the way it funds the arts in England.

While the arts sector has been doing extremely well with a booming box office and largely-satisfied customers, ACE feels it could be doing better. Especially when it comes to handing out taxpayers' money to the organisations it regularly funds.

National Theatre

The National Theatre, London

So it will ask all 850 of them - big and small - to apply for their grants, starting in April 2012. Whether you are the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, the Royal Opera House or a tiny publisher in Yorkshire, the same rules will apply: if you want funding, you need to fill in a form and sign up to some agreed goals.

Remarkably, up until now, the Arts Council says there has been no proper application process. If you were in the club, you tended to stay in the club; if you weren't, there was no obvious way of joining.

In an attempt to break that inner circle, the council will be asking all those companies that receive regular funding not only to make an initial application, but also to re-pitch every few years. In effect, it is moving from a system of rolling contracts to one of fixed-term contracts.

When I spoke to ex-Arts Council Chair and business guru Sir Gerry Robinson yesterday, he scoffed. "Are they going to stop funding the Royal Shakespeare Company?" he asked. And then answered his own question by saying "Of course not!" And then qualified it by asking "So why bother asking them to go through this charade every three years or so?"

Arts Council form

He feels that ACE is fudging. If it wants to stop funding some organisations, he argues, it should do so, but otherwise let the companies get on with it and keep bureaucracy to a minimum.

Few are likely to disagree with his sentiments. But perhaps the proposal is worth giving a chance. It hasn't come out of the blue; nor is it a knee-jerk reaction to the coalition government's recently-announced funding cuts. It's the result of over a year's work driven by a genuine desire to break up what has been seen as too cosy an arts club.

Clearly part of the motivation is also to clear out what ACE feels is some dead wood. But the council does appear to making a sincere effort to create a more open, fair, accountable and accessible funding system: one that allows new start-up companies or the previously overlooked to make their own pitches rather than waiting for an ACE talent-spotter.

Of course the status quo may persist and this initiative might be filed alongside decades of others under the heading "worthy failures". But now is not the time to judge.


  • Comment number 1.

    An interesting development and I can certainly understand the need to broaden the scope of funding. The problem which might be created is that of splintering the sector - a strength it always seems to have had is clarity of voice and message.

    It's interesting that other sectors, such as sport and active recreation, have long had these processes of form-filling, box ticking and evidence gathering, as well as a culture of monitoring and evaluation, to show 'value for money' and the true worth of investment. It's not enough to have arts for arts' sake - you've got to prove the value in terms of improving educational attainment, engagement with key groups (ethnic minorities, disability groups etc).

    However, anything that encourages support for grassroots schemes and promotes creativity is surely a good thing - the big hitters like the RSC are always going to be able to dig into the pockets of their corporate sponsors to meet the shortfall.

  • Comment number 2.

    In the interests of keeping bureaucracy to a minimum, you could abolish the parliamentary system and restore the absolute rule of the crown. The Royal Shakespeare Company is not, in fact, funded by the royalty, despite its name. Why should it be above the reporting requirements of any publicly-funded small arts organization or individual artist? Where do you draw the line?

  • Comment number 3.

    I find it surprising that the Arts Council of England does not have a formalised funding structure. At the same time, following the system here in Germany and some other parts of Europe, it appears that such application procedure is merely an attempt to justify the existence or presence of those who are already in the "club' so to speak. Would it actually offer fresh opportunities to those from the "outside"?
    Sounds like professionalisation of bureaucratic measures that will further protect its club members. Thus, should the cultural scene be really alarmed?

    As in one of my interviews with an official in Berlin, he say "It's like an omnibus system. Someone has to go out, to let someone in."

    If you wish to look at another perspective, you will find here a link to an article called "Finding a spot in the culture of entitlement

  • Comment number 4.

    As somebody who has spent significant amounts of time working on Arts Council funding applications, I wish they would scrap the Arts Council entirely.

    Take a look. Safe, tepid and entirely self-referential works that have been built from funding, not inspiration. Insincere art is worse than no art at all.

    The funding process, the goals that art is artificially tied to (how will this work improve school attendance rates?) and the dominance of an entrenched band of indistinguishable-from-each-other administrators are destroying art.

    It really does need for all Arts Funding to be dropped for five years. The art that survives will be sincere, responsive to the people and possibly pose the questions that people really need artists to be asking.

    Instead, even with this *sarcasm* horrifying new directive, the Arts Council will oversee yet more insipid, clean, sanitised middle-class placebo-art. Containing nothing and having no effect.

    This move is just a sop, a modifying gesture of no importance whatsoever. The parasites that suck on the Arts Council pallid cadaver are still in place, still keeping the Arts Council money within the narrow band of their friends, and friends of their friends.


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