TAITMAIL Time to target local arts funding

It’s always gratifying to get a proper think tank endorsing a one-man sort of inkwell tank (ink tank?) and this new report takes on a Taitmail bee - decentralising arts funding and dealing with local shortfalls – with an inarguable opening statement.

“Arts and culture are woven through our communities and our lives” starts the Fabian Society’s Cultured Communities: The crisis in local funding for arts and culture, published this week. “Every day they improve our wellbeing and help people connect with each other. They support social mobility, teaching vital skills and keeping young people in education; they reveal the pride we feel in the places where we live and they help grow the economies of villages, towns and cities across our country.” https://fabians.org.uk/publication/cultured-communities/

Never has that been more true than now when access to live performance in the pandemic is still so elusive, when local mostly voluntary initiatives have brought choirs, bands and even dance troupes into care homes and hospital wards, harnessed digital technology to fill gaps in distance teaching for locked out pupils and seen soaring membership of the University of the Third Age.

Some of the paper’s proposals, written by the think tank’s researcher Ben Cooper, will be familiar to regular Taitmailers, but it starts from the premise that successful events like Hull’s year as City of Culture in 2017 and London’s Borough of Culture series have shouted the value of arts in the community, as opposed to arts in the nation. Despite having no statutory requirement to do so local authorities were the biggest funders of culture, but since 2010 more than £860m has been cut from their arts spending, a 38.5% drop worth nearly £1.5bn a year. Even more alarming is that local authorities are still the biggest source of arts funding in this country, national cultural subsidy having dropped by 35%.

Cooper has a go at the Arts Council for its unequal spread of largesse, in that 41% of its current NPO funding is in London where, as it happens, nearly all the big cash-guzzling national institutions are, and that more than twice as much of its lottery money is spent in London as elsewhere in England, but he has a role for ACE.

These are the report’s seven recommendations:

  • The government’s £1.57bn arts and heritage rescue fund has £880m for grants £258m of which has been kept back for a second round. Cooper wants that handed over to local authorities under the guidance of ACE
  • Councils should get an extra government subvention for five years to invest in local culture, with a £500m a year “Arts Future Resilience Fund” available to match-fund with councils’ contributions
  • High streets, a popular topic here: another £500m should be provided to help councils buy empty high street shops and rent them to arts organisations and creative freelancers
  • ACE should be made to spread its lottery largesse more fairly, aiming for an “equal per person” share-out by 2025, with ACE advising local bodies on allocation
  • There should be more national funding for the UK City of Culture scheme, the third manifestation of which happens in Coventry next year and which would have a new focus on community arts organisations
  • Local authorities should sign up to a charter of commitment to arts and culture so they can “help arts and culture contribute to improved wellbeing, increased social mobility, transformed communities and a stronger local economy”
  • Instrumentalism, once anathema to arts folk who clung passionately to the old 19th century French romantic mantra “art for art’s sake”: councils should start funding arts organisations that can contribute to delivering “services and new solutions to long-standing local problems “ including channelling non-cultural cash their way – such as public health funding - as appropriate

It’s not the first proposal that we should allow our arts to reflect the local tones of our culture, nor is it the most sophisticated. In February last year the Cultural City Compacts enquiry, commissioned from BOP Consulting by the our national arts councils, said that the major 30 cities that constitute the Core Cities and Key Cities co-operative groups should draw the resources of culture, business, education and local leaders to embed the arts and culture in civic life, and it had at least the vocal support of the then culture secretary, Jeremy Wright. It instructed cultural organisations to share expertise, infrastructure, even investment, calling for Corporate Social Venture Funds to which local businesses contribute to support creative social enterprises, nuanced tax relief for smaller arts organisations, a portfolio of cultural property assets, and apprenticeship rules loosened to creative talent a proper start. It even called on cultural investment in our high streets.

BOP’s Jonathan Todd wrote in an article for AI that too many places in the UK have endured a diminished sense of purpose for much too long. “The solutions are as multi-faceted as the causes are complex, but culture has a part to play in confronting these big civic challenges, in building pride in our past, optimism in our future, and joy in our present. Something that can bring this to our communities deserves to be considered alongside transport, housing and energy as vital to our civic infrastructure” he wrote. That has become even more vital since Covid.

And it shouts out “local”, so it makes sense to turn round the funding model, separating the vital parts of our communities’ art from the big national institutions, both of which the Arts Council currently has funding responsibility for.

That the Fabian report comes in the context of a recovery of a once bountiful but now devastated sector from Covid may perforce have limited vision, but within it is the kernel of a way to the future. With Jeremy Hunt’s dream of a philanthropy-based arts economy smouldering in the Covid car crash, earning for arts organisations at zero for the last six months and business sponsorship moribund for a decade or more, we are entering a new age of arts subsidy as we step out of the coronavirus Armageddon.

Lately, the government has been telling arts organisations to get more commercial in their business approach, and so they have been doing since 2010 with spectacular success. Intriguingly, the government’s rescue plan includes an element of “investment” - £270m for loans to be given over long periods on very low fixed interest terms. This is aimed at the large organisations, but it could be reiterated on a national basis through the Fabian Arts Future Resilience Fund.

It needs the government to put away once and for all the outdated Thatcherite war against local government and treat councils like grown-ups, adults that understand both the value of community culture as more than child-friendly entertainment and at the same time how to create business plans, value partnerships and know the difference between a grant and a loan.


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