Balancing act!

The Arts Council’s investment process is well underway; in July we are going to announce how we plan to invest for the next three years in a National portfolio of organisations - one of our three connected investment strands alongside Grants for the arts and our strategic funds

In March we received applications from 876 organisations to become National portfolio organisations and from 26 museums for Major partner museum status. Together, those organisations requested a total of approximately £422.5m for 2015-16, against a budget of £355.2m.

As we closed our application process we were already faced with a £70 million gap between our available annual budget and a scale of genuine ambition we cannot meet in every case.

So now would seem to be a good moment to reflect on some of the challenges the Arts Council faces in doing its job. These challenges reflect the reality we all live in.

Marjanishvili Theatre, Captain Corelli's Mandolin

We’re in a tough climate for public funding, as you know well. The Arts Council’s Grant in Aid has been cut by 36% since 2010; and across the country, local authority funding is under great pressure.  We’re now an organisation of just over 400 people: not so long ago it was nearer 1,000. We’re striving to work nationally and locally for the benefit of culture and for audiences of culture.

It’s as well not to forget that we have all had considerable reductions in funding: because despite that, the cultural sector has been doing great work and giving hungry audiences challenging, interesting and engaging experiences all over the country. It’s hard, but great stuff has been done. And we’ve made less money go further. It’s a huge thing, and one that we really shouldn’t take for granted or allow others to take it for granted. There’s been a lot of change and a lot of hard work to keep things strong.   

As well as the financial pressures on us we are of course, rightly being scrutinised about how we divide up our money. At the Arts Council we’ve responded to the debate around the geographical imbalance in our investment read This England here – explaining how we are addressing that issue.

The essential message is that if the relatively small amount of money we spend on arts and culture in this country is to have the positive effect that it does we have to make sure that money invested can cross geographical boundaries.  At the same time as we make sure that art is made all over the country and exhibitions with local and national origins can be enjoyed.

To do this we need to nurture the entire arts ecology, in all regions of the country and we do this by making judgements and thinking carefully about the quality and reach we get for the money that goes in. Our role is to have the national overview, to weave the stories together from across all our offices and on the ground expertise; to be able to look at the inter-play between cities and suburbs, rural and urban, as part of an intricate life sustaining network.

We have already decided the amount of money we invest in London must not increase this time round but we also believe we shouldn’t damage the incredible success of the capital by depriving its brilliant organisations of funding, or taking for granted the great things that artists who work in the capital achieve, or belittling the role of national collections as a common wealth in national life.  

In recent years the weight of our Lottery investment has shifted away from London – now 70% is spent outside the capital – an increase of 10% –and we want to improve on that figure as long as our Lottery income levels stay healthy.

But of course geography is just one factor we have to balance to achieve a vibrant arts and cultural ecology, we take many factors into account including artform and the quality of the art and cultural experience produced, diversity, size and type of organisation. Every change within our living, evolving network of artists, cultural organisations and venues is felt widely, so we have to consider it all.

We respond to the applications we receive – and we have received a range of applications that in geographic proportion are very similar to the current National portfolio. This means that we have to be realistic about how much change there will be within the portfolio itself.  We must also think of Grants for the arts and our strategic funds as more flexible investments to achieve specific aims, such as building capacity in areas where demand from the public is low.  

We’ll look for a balance, and to do more to achieve our mission of bringing great art and culture to everyone, everywhere. We know that there is still a great deal to be done.

We want to fund festivals and outdoor art, dancers in disused factories and shopping centres, writers and actors inspiring our children at school, summer melas and country house operas, reaching the young, the old and reflecting the diverse audiences in contemporary England. There will be space for the small-scale and experimental, and for supporting the bold artistic choices made by our theatres that allows them to dominate the world stage, or the collections that draw thousands of visitors into our much-loved museums.

There are other gaps at the front of our minds, not just the budgetary gap but gaps in demand, engagement or infrastructure, areas where lottery ticket buyers and taxpayers deserve great art and culture too.

The job is never done in terms of balancing our investment but we are confident – because we discuss it regularly with you - we are focused on the right issues. The gap between what organisations want and what we can afford, means we know some people will be disappointed in July but, broadly, we can make the money work to keep our sector resilient and make sure art and culture are still central to this country’s way of life.  I am not so confident that our partners in local government will be able to do the same.

I do worry about Local Government and the pressure on their budgets. Local authorities are the biggest investors in culture but their overall budgets are on the decline. Many – places like Manchester, Durham, Hull or Bristol – understand why culture matters and try to maximise the amount they can spend on culture.  We need others to keep the faith in the power of the arts, museums and libraries to transform communities into better places to live.  It’s also critical for local enterprise partnerships to realise the full potential of cultural organisations. They are the risk takers and new talent pools for this country’s burgeoning creative industries – almost every Oscar winner or world famous artist you can name got a break somewhere thanks to public investment. 

I - and I think this applies to everyone who works at the Arts Council - fundamentally believe in the power that art and culture has to change lives for the better, and we know we are not alone in believing this. If we get the balance right we can make sure the sector gets through the hard years ahead and still ensure a vibrant cultural life for the country.

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