The Arts Council has produced a paper it commissioned from the New Local Government Network. The thrust of the message was to encourage local authorities not to cut arts subsidies. Of course for one bit of the public sector to lobby another bit of the public sector is an abuse of taxpayers’ money. But what is interesting is how the evidence makes the opposite case. The arts have thrived as council funding has been cut.
One interesting finding has been that those that have had a reduction in council funding have generally managed to more than offset it by raising more money elsewhere.
“Important as they are, local authorities are not the only sources of support for arts and culture. Institutions are accomplished fund-raisers with a diverse income from commercial and philanthropic activity. Arts and cultural organisations can also call upon the support of the Arts Council England (ACE), whose support includes regular funding to a portfolio of major institutions, the cultural backbone of the country. A new round of funding, 2015 to 2018, will invest just under £1 billion in 663 ‘national portfolio organisations’ (NPOs).
“Reviewing the total funding of a constant sample of 565 NPOs over the first five years of the decade shows the impact so far of local authority cuts on those institutions. In total, the level of funding from local authorities had fallen by 27 per cent, from £89 million in 2010 to £65 million by 2015. Over the same period, the total resourcing of NPOs has increased by 17 per cent, from £1.14 billion to £1.33 billion, with the proportion of funding derived from local government falling from 8 per cent to 5 per cent.”
It’s not just about money. Kingsley Amis argued that subsidies harmed the arts as they required “plays without plots, a canvas entirely covered with black paint offered as a picture, poems that are meaningless patterns of letters…” When funding comes from the public – whether as customers or patrons – there will still be an array of experimentation to cater for the widest range of tastes.
But within that mix there will be room for the traditional, the mainstream – there will be concerts and plays that people will be very willing to buy tickets for to go and see. These are the sort of productions that tend to be crowded out when bureaucrats control the funding and soulless and dreary productions are the imperative.
Another response to the new financial climate has been better management. For example:
“Dorset County Council, which transferred its Arts Unit to a public service mutual, together with four years’ ring-fenced investment. The Arts Development Company administers grants, works to develop cultural agendas within the county around health and wellbeing, the visitor economy and the environment and, as such, is well positioned to attract commissions that the county’s many small arts and cultural organisations would struggle to achieve individually.
“Configured as a social enterprise it is also working with the County Council as it disposes of a significant portion of its estates portfolio by acquiring properties and redeveloping them for either cultural use or commercial benefit.”
The message is that if you want culture to flourish the more independently the arts are managed and financed the better.