I'm writing this blog on my way to Durham, a great city with a council going out of its way to embrace and enhance its cultural offer. I'm looking forward to a conversation about what we can do together, both in the short term and the long - building capacity and engagement.
This notion of building from the grassroots up is important. Last week I was in Hull, UK City of Culture in 2017 and a city with a great heritage; home of William Wilberforce, birthplace of the Watersons, stamping ground of Philip Larkin and the place where John Godber brought theatre to the people through Hull Truck theatre. It’s a city with an endowment that supports its public libraries and is home of the wonderful Ferens gallery. And much else.
But Hull is also a place where after our last investment process we identified relatively low engagement in culture and small numbers of applications to our various funding schemes. So it is one of our Creative People and Places sites, where we are putting in £3 million to build capacity and engagement from the ground up. We are also investing another £3 million for the City of Culture activity. We will be working hard there to increase the levels and quality of applications we receive now and in the future. All of this we do partnership with a lively bunch of cultural partners, and a local council that is backing culture.
Our investment in Hull is an example of the kind of thing we need to do to reach every nook and cranny of the country.
We explain this work in our publication This England, which shows how our money works with other partners’ investments across the whole country. It is a contribution to the debate that has opened around the geography of cultural investment - a debate we are listening to and taking part in. One thing I have already heard from you is the Arts Council has a critical role in supporting the sort of capacity building I describe above in Hull. We must look to strengthen that where it is needed through our next investment period.
This week I saw a spate of blogs and tweets questioning the motivation of This England – suggesting it was an attempt at spin - that we wanted to close the debate down. I felt really upset by that. It really is the opposite. It’s an attempt to explain a complicated challenge, and our policy response, as clearly and simply as possible. In order to make the most of the modest amount of money we've got, we've got to be thoughtful about how it's done, not just do it according to a formula.
Some people have asked questions about the numbers - so some responses to these observations are here. We have tried to simplify the data we put into the document but we tried not to justify a particular interpretation of the numbers.
I think This England shows we have achieved some good things but major challenges remain in areas of low provision and we have to work hard to ensure as many people as possible benefit from our investment. There is more to do and we want to debate that with you, the people who can make policy solutions a reality. That debate is happening at events and in the media across England but you can send your comments directly to me using the comments section on this blog.
It's a significant week for us. We have seen applications from 877 organisations for National portfolio funding, and 26 for Major partner museums, from across the length and breadth of the country. It's humbling to think about the importance of the decisions we now have to make on the final NPO and MPM portfolio - it's not going to be easy.
In making our decisions, we’ll be holding on to the desire to retain ambition, risk, excellence and reach. We will go through a careful, considered process of looking at how organisations will fit together to create a balanced, dynamic portfolio.
Our investment is informed by our wider strategy. Great art and culture for everyone is the roadmap that we’ll refer to time and again. We’ll follow this roadmap in supporting art and culture that is spread across the country, and exploits the creative potential of diversity.
I’d like to finish by stepping away from the debate about our investment, because it is our job to look forward, to bring the sector together to make the holistic case for culture that we referred to in our conclusion to This England. That is why we recently published The value of arts and culture to people and society - an evidence review, which brings together research into the impact of arts and culture on social wellbeing and cohesion, physical and mental health, education, national status and the economy. We will be producing more content like this in the coming months to help us make the case together.
We mustn't lose sight of the fact that we are living in times where pressure on Local Government - and indeed the fact that the Arts Council has less money to spend - presents a real danger to culture and opportunity and our ability to extend its reach.
At the BBC Folk Awards this year, Peggy Seeger led a tribute to her late brother Pete, getting us all to sing his great song Quite Early Morning. It's about how we need to get on and act now and it's been going through my head a lot recently, because we do need to join together and make our case for arts and culture now. Tomorrow will be too late.
Here are some of the words:
'We know it's darkest before the dawn
The coming light keeps us moving on
We must heed the early warnings
The time is now, quite Early Morning...'
We do need to act. The time is now. Let's act together.
As I head up to Durham this early morning and the sun is coming out, that's what keeps getting me out of bed.