There’s a great story to be told

It’s now been a week or so since we announced our decisions on National portfolio organisations and Major partner museums. We’ve had many reactions, as you’d imagine.

When you are making these kinds of announcements a press conference or in a blog, you have to think very quickly.

Reflecting on the process, and talking to people who’ve been on the receiving end of these decisions, I find myself wanting to share one or two thoughts I was unable to dwell on at the time. 

Behind every public process, and every great story, lies an untold story of the things that might have been.

I have a particular love for the stories of the Homeric era. One of my favourite books is The Epic Cycle, part of the Loeb classical library. This draws together the sources of the stories that inspired Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides - and all the storytellers and poets of classical Greek literature.  But there’s a catch; these stories were perhaps passed on in oral form, like The Iliad and Odyssey, and when they were written down, they did not survive various fires and lootings through the ages. Instead, The Epic Cycle reconstructs the stories from snippets referred to by later authors – especially Athenaeus, whose ‘The Learned Banqueters’ is a collection of dinner party conversations that recount bits from works that are that are otherwise lost to us. So, the great Greek stories of the heroic age that seem so certain and defined are constructed only from those fragments that have survived, often embedded in other stories: how different they might sound, if we knew more. If we could read the whole story.

The great untold story from the NPO process is about the ambition that we weren’t able to fund. We said to applicants that if they asked for extra money it had to be for extra activity – and it also had to have some match - funding identified. Organisations asked for far more than the money we had to spend. There were wonderful ideas that we would have liked to fund. There were plans for more ambitious and wide ranging programmes, new residencies, and deep engagement with young people - work that contributes to our sense of self and shows us what the arts can do for us all. It’s hard to make decisions about this; but that’s our job. Still, I do sometimes allow myself to dream about what might have been, and might be - if we had more resources.

There is a purpose to this dreaming. We need to start thinking and talking now about the resources that will be available for arts and culture in the future, and have this conversation with all the political parties leading up to the next election.

I had an incredibly cheering set of workshops with a bunch of Clore Fellows the other day, who came to the conclusion that we need to persuade politicians that culture plays such a significant part in furthering the work of other, better funded Government departments, that a case for allocating more resources becomes compelling. We’ll be developing this idea this autumn, as part of a wider argument we’ll be making about the vital roles the arts play in society- what we call the Holistic Case for public investment in arts and culture.

Imagine if it did happen. How would we use more money? We ought to be asking for extra money as investment in those areas of the country that need it. I think we have always been pretty clear that building and strengthening long-lasting capacity nationally will not come from a big-bang reassignment of money in the National portfolio or through us providing inadequate replacement for lost local government funding.  Instead, I believe it will come from consistent investment – with our local authority partners – over a long period of time. It’s how we’ve achieved what we have, so far - and it’s how we need to make genuine progress in the future.

Thinking along these sustainable lines might be the basis of our ask to future governments. Culture is playing an important role as the economy emerges from recession, all over the country.

In the meantime we are making the money we do have work harder across geographical boundaries and we have allocated £15 million to developing talent and ambition outside of London, which will build on the work we do to support talent and youth through Grants for the arts. But we must not spread resources too thinly to be effective.

So we move from dreaming about what our story might be, to thinking how to make that a reality. For us the next spending review has already begun, and we’ve picked up on conversations we put on hold in recent weeks – conversations about how we can make the case for public investment in the arts. We want to use what we’ve learned from this investment process to make the case better.

Being clear about what we need – and knowing why we are asking for what we are asking for –will make all the difference.  And thinking what we could not fund in this NPO round that we might have funded if we’d had the money is the place to start. What sort of a story for the arts in  England would that have been?

That’s what I have been dreaming about - and it’s the story I want to start piecing together. 

Links and further information

Watch this short animation about how the Arts Council invests in great art and culture across the country:

Find out more about our National portfolio investment for 2015-18

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