THE WORD The lottery and saving the Arts Council

 

The National Lottery has transformed the status of the arts and heritage in England, and one of the few people still involved, as a trustee of subsidised arts organisations, who has seen from the start the wayward and unpredictable development of the monster that has delivered more than £1 billion to the sector is Prue Skene.

Her new book, Capital Gains, charts in forensic detail the extraordinary switch-back story from the unique position of having chaired the Arts Council England’s lottery panel from its inception in 1992 to 2000, and what has happened since. In this edited extract, she describes the downcast mood of the Arts Council when savage cuts to arts subsidy began in 2011 and, against the background of the lottery, how ACE has survived and changed

Rumours abounded at each spending round that ACE was to be abolished, but so far it has survived. However, the hope expressed by Peter Brooke (former Secretary of State at the Department for National Heritage, forerunner of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport) back in 1993 that it would no longer have to suffer reviews into its work and staffing remains hollow. It is not dead but has certainly suffered deep cuts: its national and London offices share one floor of a Bloomsbury office block into which are also squeezed six other “government agencies”, including Sport England, UK Sport and the Horserace Betting Levy Board.  

Some consistency in the regular roundabout of secretaries of state and ministers was granted by Ed Vaizey’s term as the longest-serving arts minister – he was appointed in 2010 and remained until the summer of 2016, when he was ousted as part of Theresa May’s post-Brexit turnaround of government ministers. Before he went, and after some delays, he produced a Culture White Paper in March 2016. It was the first since that published by Jennie Lee, A Policy for the Arts, in 1965 and was welcomed for its commitment to the arts and heritage, its emphasis on cultural access for all, particularly disadvantaged youth, and its desire to ensure diversity throughout cultural organisations. It contains a plethora of schemes and initiatives (some new, some already announced, some already in action, some to be the particular responsibility of one of DCMS’s quangos, others to be delivered through a series of partnerships – a favoured word) as well as, hey ho, another review of ACE (. While speaking of the importance of cultural communities, however, it fails to address the devastation that is being wreaked on arts organisations by government cuts to local authorities, but where its hypocrisy is breathtaking is in its attitude to education. Containing as it does a quotation from the then Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan – “I want every single young person to have the opportunity to discover how the arts can enrich their lives. Access to cultural education is a matter of social justice” – and much about the need for all young people to have access to the arts and culture generally, it is silent on the fact that under the present Conservative government arts education in schools is diminishing rapidly.

The tailored review was issued by the DCMS in April 2017 and overall gave ACE a good report, saying it seemed to be an effective and well-governed organisation – in spite of darkly hinting that efficiencies can always be made. While re-endorsing the arm’s length principle it stresses that ACE should be seen as a development agency and its tone relies heavily on investment rather than grant-giving (it urges that ACE “should build the financial skills capability of the sectors, supporting them to diversify further their revenue streams, embed commercial skills and commercial leadership, and become ‘investment ready’”); there’s much about the need for diversity and access, evaluation and risk management but sadly nothing about the importance of ACE promoting the arts sector as vital to the cultural life and well-being of the nation.

Cultural commentary has increased since the 1999s into an industry, much of it centred on cultural value. As Robert Hewison describes in his book Cultural Capital (2014), attempts to define this began in the mid 2000s; more recently the Warwick Commission issued a 2015 report on the subject entitled Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth, only to have its findings subsequently questioned in early 2016 by Understanding the value of arts & culture by Geoffrey Crossick and Patrycja Kaszynska, commissioned by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which argues that previous enquiries have been based on inadequate research. The White Paper also joins in the debate, particularly in terms of culture’s intrinsic, social and economic value. Skipping quickly over the intrinsic, in three sentences suggesting that culture enhances wellbeing and “life satisfaction”, it recognises more fully the social, mostly in terms of the contribution it can make to mental and physical health and “community cohesion”; in terms of the economic, a table shows the “value of culture” (assessed by gross value added, nominal terms – make of that what you will) rising from £3.75 billion in 2008 to £5.4 billion in 2014. The national cultural policy debate has also included ACE’s own strategic framework for 2010–20 entitled Great Art and Culture for Everyone; Robert Hewison’s informative book; and regular calls from GPS Consulting to rebalance the funding between London and the regions, including Rebalancing our Cultural Capital. ACE has listened and committed itself to spending at least 75 per cent of its lottery income outside London in the future.

The council itself now consists of a (relatively) manageable membership of fourteen, a reasonable mix of arts practitioners and those from philanthropic and finance backgrounds, with the five regions each represented by the chair of its area council, which provide local information and advocacy and take decisions on revenue applications up to £800,000. There was some controversy when Sir Peter Bazalgette replaced the Labour-appointed Dame Liz Forgan as the Council’s chair in 2013, but mutterings that he was a Tory placeman were swiftly smothered by his obvious interest in the arts and his indefatigable touring around the country. Political allegiance did not stop some immediate cuts to ACE under his watch, but to him and to Darren Henley, who took over as chief executive in 2015, must go much of the credit for the surprise announcement of a brief blast of oxygen being pumped into the system by chancellor George Osborne’s 2015 autumn statement. Recognising the economic benefits that the cultural industries contribute to national life, he marginally raised the Treasury grant instead of clubbing it still further. The council still seems to meet more than is perhaps normal for a board (nine times a year) and its minutes are now posted on ACE’s website, albeit with substantial redactions; the main power appears to lie with the executive team, consisting of chief executive and deputy, and national directors of arts and culture, finance and communications. They were joined in the autumn of 2016 by the chief operating officer and the executive director, enterprise and innovation, tipping even further the balance away from arts experience and knowledge. The executive team and various officers drafted in for specific items bring the attendance at Council meetings to about twenty-six, only slightly fewer than the large roomful into which I ventured at my first Council meeting. Sir Peter Bazalgette stood down in early 2017 and the arts world reacted positively to the news that Sir Nicholas Serota succeeds him. Having experienced his lobbying skills I have every hope that he will be able to keep the profile of the arts high among politicians; it is certainly good to know that such a senior and successful figure will be fighting for the sector.

Capital Gains; How the National Lottery transformed England’s arts, by Prue Skene, is published by Franchise Press

Photo credit: Sophie Baker

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