Looking back with pride - and forward with hope

Today Arts Council England announces its National portfolio of arts organisations and its Major partner museums for 2015-18.

I believe the decisions we’ve made reward ambition. We have looked to the future, investing in work for children and young people, and seeking to develop talent, wherever it emerges. We’ve sought to reach into more communities, while continuing to invest in arts organisations that have done great things in the last three years; we want them to build on their past work, and go further.

It will be a relief to some organisations to know they will continue to receive funding from us, and a delight for the new organisations we have brought in. I know it will be a disappointment to those who we can’t support this time. There were many excellent applications that we simply did not have the resources to fund.

Today sees a big announcement - but it’s important to emphasise that the National portfolio is only one of our funding streams. Not receiving funding from the National portfolio budget need not be the end of your relationship with us. Many former recipients of Grant-in-Aid have gone on to flourish, and have found, for example, that our Grants for the arts programme can be a more appropriate and flexible means of support. We’ve also set out what our Strategic programmes will be so that the whole range of options will be apparent.

Using the money available we have tried to do something akin to 3D chess - to maintain a portfolio that can produce excellence and engage audiences all over the country, and in the process we have added slightly to the budget so that we could invest a bit more outside London – without harming London’s status as a national and international cultural powerhouse.

So, in balancing the portfolio, we have considered the geographical base of producing organisations; where their work is experienced, the emphasis given to art forms; the need for both continuity and innovation, contemporary and traditional, our investment in young people – the audiences, artists and creative leaders of the future – and the imperative of excellence. Choices become particularly hard when your starting point is an existing portfolio that was carefully selected in the first place, and which contains so much outstanding quality.

Personally, it makes me glad that we have Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures & Re:Bourne in the portfolio, performing all over the country and engaging young people in contemporary dance. I’m also glad we’re investing for the first time in a national youth folk ensemble via the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Being able to support serious contemporary music through Oto Projects, and modern presentations of classical music through the Aurora Orchestra also cheers me greatly. We’ve got some great museums as new members of the Major partner museums portfolio, including The For Cornwall Museums Partnership, Museums Sheffield and Hull Museums. We have maintained investment in our world-class symphony orchestras and network of regional theatres, bringing In Derby Theatre, and added new centres for the visual arts, including the Castlefield Gallery in Manchester and Baltic 39 in Newcastle.

How has this process been overall?  In one sense, really good because of the way in which organisations approached it so thoroughly. There were many encouraging aspects to the applications – including the number of organisations who took work with children and young people seriously and those who wanted to make proper commitment to diversity a reality through the way they do their work

The process also allowed us to understand in granular detail the pressure organisations are under, and it made us concerned about the long-term capacity of some organisations – especially in the regions – to realise their ambitions given the challenging financial environment. 

Which is why we have today announced a Regional ambition fund of £15 million, which is designed to help funded organisations in the regions support the ambition of their artistic leaders, so that they can expand artistic practice and develop deep roots in their communities.  We will also continue with a programme of Exceptional awards that will fund one-off, extraordinary events – allowing companies and artists to dream, even in the midst of financial pressures.

Those pressures affect all of us. The Arts Council’s Grant-in-Aid budget has been cut by 36 per cent in real terms since 2010.  We’ve had some mitigation from the Lottery – and thank goodness for that – with an increased share granted by the Government. But this has been countered by the blow of local government cuts outside London. These have and will challenge the whole funding model for culture, which depends on a real local-national partnership for its effectiveness.  We have tried to ensure some degree of stability – and we’ll need to work with our funding partners see what more we can do.

We’ve kept the National portfolio budget strong by using some additional Lottery money but it is not without cost to opportunities elsewhere. It’s reduced the money that we have available for Strategic funds – money to help resilience, build digital capacity, invest in innovation and new work, and Capital funds.

Despite this, we have increased funds for Grants for the arts, maintained investment in our Creative people and places programme and kept to a minimum the reduction in the Strategic touring programme, so that more people across England can experience and be inspired by the arts. These are designed to build capacity and engagement in places where there has hitherto been little of either.

With our current limited resources, we can’t solve all the historic and present difficulties facing the cultural sector. We’ve made a start by looking at how large-scale opera and ballet companies could ensure best value for public funds, while meeting the expectations of audiences, through a thorough analysis of their activity and business models. We will also be ensuring that more excellent work is seen in the regions. But there are other issues we ought to consider over the next few years.

For example, I think there are questions about the economic pressures faced by regional theatre that we need to address. These have an impact on the ability of companies – especially building-based ones - to take artistic risk.  There is also a shortage of quality, mid-scale productions.  We will address the latter issue as part of a wider examination of touring. The former requires discussion with the sector, and we will do some work in the light of the theatre tax breaks. We think these tax breaks have the potential to help a great deal, but they are in no way a replacement for public funding and we have to make sure they are applied in the right way. We will continue to review our investment model for producing theatres with a view to identifying how their early 21st century role might best developIn the meantime, the Regional Ambition Fund can help support artistic quality.

So, here it is; a National portfolio that gets us through the next three years with a cultural ecology that still has shape, intent and ambition.  But we all recognise that this period will be tough financially. I hope Government can see that, and will acknowledge the huge efforts of the arts and culture community to make their resources go a long way, while still expressing their creativity.  Perhaps, down the line, this will translate into more financial security for arts and culture organisations, and secure the status of those wonderful activities and works that contribute so much to who we are as individuals, and as a nation.

The poet Robert Frost talked about ‘a hired man’ who had nothing to look backward to with pride, or forward to with hope.  Engagement with culture gives us both and takes us into the realm of ambition and possibility; and I believe the portfolio we have announced today will give citizens of this country cause for both pride and hope.

We’ve worked hard to try to try make the right choices, using all the expertise and knowledge we’ve built up at the local, regional and national levels: you – our sector and the public - will tell us if we’ve made wise choices. Now we need to get on and make everything work for the good of our nation’s art and culture, and for audiences everywhere.

To find out more about our investment announcements, visit: www.artscouncil.org.uk/investment

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