Ting-ting! Here comes a new funding cycle
Nicholas Serota was like a boy with a new bike, going through the gears, testing its turning circle, seeing how far he could push it but not braking too hard.
He was announcing what he expansively called “the largest ever increase in Arts Council England’s portfolio” – but so much has changed in the last five or six years, how can one tell? The ACE press release was more circumspect, referring to a “significant increase”, but the chairman didn’t want the council to hide its light.
What he, CEO Darren Henley and the Bloomsbury geeks who do the sums have managed to achieve is the momentum shift to regional funding they have been told to do by select committees and successive culture secretaries without doing noticeable damage to London, even adding a few London arts organisations to the national portfolio. Grants in London are down 3.8%, up in the regions by an average 22.35%. They have also extended the three year funding round to four to make planning easier and reduce time spent filling in grant application forms.
So the sleight of hand ACE has done is to take the new additionality rules about the national lottery to heart and use its lottery reserves to give £170m more to the regions over the four years, and leave London on more or less standstill with the four big national clients, the Royal Opera House, National Theatre, RSC and Southbank Centre, being persuaded to take a 3% cut – well, they are better placed to get alternative funding, that’s pragmatism.
Much is made of the return of English National Opera to the national portfolio it was cast out of three years ago with a £5m a year cut in its grant, but what does being brought back mean? Nothing in the funding sense, because the grant they already get as a non-NPO is not to be increased, so that by 2022 and the end of this funding round they will be considerably worse off in real terms. But as ENO’s CEO Cressida Pollock says, the loss of the money is bad but the loss of the Arts Council’s imprimatur disastrous for fundraising. Sponsors, foundations and philanthropists like to see that ACE logo on the begging letter.
And there’s Bristol’s Arnolfini, which after been in the portfolio since it was set up 13 years ago, has been cast out into the night, with nothing. All its £750,000 a year has been ripped from its grasp, just as a new director takes over, because - like ENO three years ago - its business model wasn’t good enough. Serota hints that the Arnolfini, which he knows well from his Tate years, will be back after some nursing, but that won’t help as the gallery approaches an ACE grantless four years, not even the three years ENO had to endure.
But it is a subtle change. Whether they have cultural responsibility or not - some do, some don’t – ACE will be clustering around the new metropolitan mayors to continue the task of negotiating partnerships that might to some extent ameliorate the effects of local authority arts funding cuts, because that is where the new power bases are going to be. That they've announced will good with them
So it’s both bold and nuanced, this new journey ACE has set off on, and given his evident enthusiasm for his new form of transport, Serota looks unlikely to fall off his new bike soon.