TAITMAIL. Following the arts into a new world

The music sector has gone apoplectic over cuts in the subsidy for music, first with the Arts Council’s unexplained and, frankly inexplicable decisions, and then with the BBC’s loony attempt (failed, so far) to lop 20% off its orchestras’ budget.

Simon Rattle led that charge in a recent speech at a Barbican concert following up on ACE’s November decision, without consultation with apparently anyone at all, to cut English National Opera out of its circle of favoured music makers for 2023-26. “When the two largest supporters of classical music in this country cut away at the flesh of our culture in this way, it means that the direction of travel has become deeply alarming. It’s clear we are facing a long-term fight for existence and we cannot just quietly acquiesce to the dismantling or dismembering of so many important companies” he said.

Now his chum Nicholas Hytner has joined the fray, looking a little further than the omnishambles around the November announcement about the next three years of the National Portfolio. He sees the end of the Arts Council as it has become and a complete rethink of the whole arts funding system.
 
Politicians have long dismissed the passionate complaints of the arts sector as theatrical histrionics, which will not be taken seriously by the electorate, but something has changed. These two titans of the arts don’t have personal axes to grind – Rattle is leaving the LSO this year to take over an orchestra in Germany where he lives, and Hytner, who for 12 years ran the theatre in which more public funding is invested than any other, the National, is now running his own hugely successful commercial theatre. They’re not honing personal axes but they are in despair about the art and its audiences, knowing how essential subsidy is and always has been to our culture, and watching the system crumble.
 
Both are clear that the structure we have been trying to remould into changing circumstances has failed. The Arts Council, once only preoccupied with the quality of the art the public has access to, has lost it, bewildered by new duties to inclusivity and diversification and increasingly limited funding, and too compliant with the severing of the arm’s length principle, so that instructions from the government to cut funding to London arts organisations by £24m are carried out at a canter without reference to the organisations concerned, the  money to be spaffed instead in an amorphous and imprecise “levelling up” policy.
 
Covid has changed things irrevocably. We discovered through the lockdowns and the discovery of the versatility of online communication that creativity is a universal activity, revealing hitherto undiscovered audiences and participants. Local authorities saw the need to make space and some resources available to their communities, so much social activity having to take place out of doors, and this has stuck post-lockdown. 
 
The Treasury is well aware of the financial value of the creative industries now, £109bn a year equivalent to 5.6% of the entire UK economy, and while (presumably with that figure in mind) it coughed up £1.6bn for a Culture Recovery Fund to prevent the whole sector from collapsing, the follow-up to ensure it continues to survive has never happened.  Since 2005 government arts funding has fallen by 46% in real terms and the trend hasn’t paused. 
 
In those far off pre-2005 days ACE, or its predecessor the Arts Council of Great Britain, could stick to its original brief, content in the belief that the population generally had a decent appreciation of the arts and creativity through their state education. That is no longer there, with no liaison or exchange of information between DfEd and DCMS. The government insists on STEM – science, technology, engineering, mathematics – in the curriculum, with no A for arts. And higher education arts funding has been cut by half. 
 
Hytner wants a recasting of the whole cultural subsidy framework to be set on the lines of sport, which has two funding organisations, UK Sport for the elite - Olympics, professional football etc - and Sport England for “everyone”, in other words amateurs. So ACE would be for the top end, like Hytner’s National Theatre or Rattle’s LSO, and a new body with its own funding stream would be established “to which new community-based initiatives as well as established education and outreach programmes can apply”. 
 
Almost there, Nick, but not quite. What has also emerged from the pandemic is the importance of local authorities in our lives, and the interaction of them with both amateur art and performance and the cultural institutions in our cities and towns, and even arts institutions of international significance keep a line open to their local councils these days.

Just before Covid 19 struck a report, Core Cities, from an enquiry chaired by the businesswoman Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia, called for the creation of “Cultural City Compacts” to draw the resources of culture, business, education and local leaders - crucially with financial support from national government – and embed the arts and culture in civic life.

The result, it said, would be a regeneration of high streets and post-industrial quarters, with creative clusters, supporting local creative talent, developing tourist revenue and building civic engagement.

“The creative industries is the fastest growing sector of the UK economy” Gadhia wrote in her foreword to the report. “We have the legacy, the talent and the opportunity to do more, and to use culture to unite communities, encourage investment and accelerate economic growth. And we have the leadership to make this happen”. It was warmly welcomed: “This Report shows how we can make best use of our cities’ cultural assets to build strong communities for the future” said ACE’s chair Nicholas Serota.

Whatever happened to that report?

Local authorities are still the biggest arts funders in the country. In 2020-23 the power of municipal mayors like Andy Burnham and Andy Street became increasingly potent, and a group of 20 English municipalities, called Key Cities, came together to mutually boost their local economies, with culture a major factor. “Investment in cultural projects represents a significant contribution towards the UK’s economic future” said Norwich Council’s leader Alan Waters. It’s crucial that these cities continue to set ambitions high in the face of the current restrictive financial climate.”

Whatever happened to Key Cities?

You can see where this is going. Arts Council England represents an outdated system, which is battling valiantly to uphold its mission but within a new environment that is too complex for it to cope with alone, and in which it cannot resist the government’s instruction, so that it is forced to make unrehearsed and wrong decisions like banishing ENO from the National Portfolio. But we have a vitally valuable resource to maintain, somehow.

Give ACE its present level of funding of £460m, paltry in the Treasury landscape, and responsibility for the flagships and supporting freelance professional makers, with its art form committees reinstated – dance, theatre, music, museums etc – and presided over by practitioners. And create a new parallel council funded by local authorities but with central government underwriting to support amateur art making and performance, and supporting an infrastructure of studio and workshop provision in our communities. Some members of both councils could be mutual for a sustained dialogue between them. And give us back creativity in our primary and secondary schools, and art at the tertiary level.
But, as Hytner hints, it may have to wait for a Labour government (perhaps made the responsibility to Labour’s new second house replacing the House of Lords and drawn from the regions and nations) to do it.

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