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Has Arts Council England abandoned its dreams?

Arts Council England's 10-year strategy, published in 2010 Arts Council England's 10-year strategy, published in 2010
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In 2010, Arts Council England put together a 10-year strategy, called Achieving Great Art for Everyone, that had the potential to revolutionise the arts sector in England. The development of AGAFE was more fundamental and more radical than anybody realised at the time.

Up until 2010, ACE operated as two organisations sharing office space. At one end, was an arts development agency, spending relatively small amounts of money to influence things like skills development, professional networks and audience research. At the other end of the building was a whopping great cash machine. Some lucky devils knew the PIN; others had to hazard a guess, or set up camp nearby and beg for spare change.

The theory behind AGAFE was that these two parts of ACE would be combined. No money would leave the building without strings attached. The cash machine was to be the means by which to achieve the development goals. If you were awarded national portfolio status in 2010 or 2014, you weren’t being funded because you were the Royal Court putting on a new Caryl Churchill play. You were being funded because you (above all your competitors in the application process) were the best vehicle for achieving ACE’s strategic objectives. That was the rhetoric, anyway.

Except it was a charade, and we all knew it was a charade. All arts organisations are equal, but some are more equal than others. Was ACE ever really not going to fund the Royal Opera House, the Southbank Centre or Sadler’s Wells? Of course not.

All of which brings us up to date, to the announcement this week that ACE is proposing a modification to its current strategy, and it would like your input. There is a big consultation underway. This is your chance to have a say.

The thing is, it doesn’t feel like an update. In fact, it feels more like a regression, back to 2009 – to the pre-AGAFE days.

Three things about the announcement tell me that the development agency and the cash machine are destined for a conscious uncoupling: the multi-tier funding system, the re-appearance of service organisations as a distinct set of clients, and the plans for so-called “strategic funds”.

At the core of the proposals is a three-tier funding model that ACE hopes to put in place from 2018. The three tiers it proposes are for organisations with annual incomes of between £40,000 and £250,000 (that’ll be most of the national portfolio organisations as they currently stand); £250,000 to £1 million (that’s the familiar big names in the regions and some of the medium-sized organisations in the capital); and those with an income of more than £1 million (well, we all know which organisations these are going to be).

I predict that we are about to enter a phase of huge consolidation in the subsidised arts sector: the rich will get richer and the poor will have to fight for the scraps. The flexibility, coherence and accountability that was the theoretical bedrock of AGAFE will become a distant memory, an unfulfilled aspiration that perhaps was never really going to work.

Because at the heart of all this is a contradiction that underpins all cultural policy: someone, somewhere with power and money has decided what sort of art is desirable and what sort is not. The trouble is, they are fickle and easily bored. They don’t want stasis, they want change: worse still, they don’t want too much of it, and it’s got to be the right kind of change.

When arts organisations deemed essential to the maintenance of the cultural infrastructure run into trouble, they benefit from payday-loan-style funding, from schemes with names like Sustain, Persist, TideMeOver.

Resilience (one of ACE’s strategic goals) is all well and good, but it isn’t always compatible with renewal and responsiveness. And not everyone is in the queue for a bail-out; some are left to their non-resilient fate. At least a four-year funding cycle that treated everyone the same meant a fresh spin of the roulette wheel, no guarantees of endless support and a real possibility of artistic revolution. What reason have we to believe that the £1 million-plus club won’t raise the drawbridge, sink their foundations ever deeper and become too big to fail?

The reappearance of “service organisations” is a telling signal that we’ve travelled back in time. This refers to the likes of the bridge organisations, which do so much vital work supporting cultural education. For the 2010 and 2014 NPO funding rounds, service, umbrella, network organisations (now known as SUN organisations) were treated like any other applicant. After all, it shouldn’t make a difference whether or not you are staging an opera or teaching the residents of a housing estate to sing, you were to be funded by ACE on the basis of the degree to which you helped it achieve its objectives.

In the new proposals, the playing field is unlevelled. We’re back in 2009, with the development agency working backstage to influence the sector, while the big money goes to fund the creation of art.

The proposals around strategic funds represent another regression to seven years ago. Strategic funds were a way to use Lottery funding for traditional arts development activity in a way that satisfied accounting authorities. Managed funds, in the pre-AGAFE days, were how ACE used grant-in-aid money to support such work. In the past two years, there has been a complete melding of grant-in-aid and Lottery money. The principle of additionality (that Lottery money should never be used to back-fill government cuts) is gone, and strategic funds look set to become the very thing we were told they were not: “The new name for managed funds”. When the National Lottery was set up in the early 1990s and people began to talk about good causes, this is exactly what they feared would happen. If John Major were dead, he’d be spinning in his grave.

There have been two restructures at ACE since 2009, when the arts debate was a year old and the extensive pre-AGAFE consultation was underway. There can’t be many survivors still in post. Just as a reminder to all of us, the big themes to emerge from those exercises were a call for more accountability in how decisions were made, a desire to serve a wider audience, more support for individual artists, and better co-ordination with local authorities and other local partners – all the while respecting expert judgment of what constitutes “excellence”.

Nothing has changed. Expect to hear the same again this year. After all, it is 2009 again. Isn’t it?

For more details and to respond to the consultation, click here.

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