‘We can and should be more responsive to local priorities’
We can all agree that, for all its imperfections, no public service is as loved as the NHS. And few of us would be churlish enough to deny it more money. I believe the world of arts and culture can be as cherished by the public, but only if we radically change. And just as the NHS came out of the Second World War, we can use this pandemic to forge our own version: the National Arts Service.
The NHS is an idea so radical, it still feels impossible in other countries: that health is a personal right and public benefit, accessible to everyone regardless of ability to pay.
We could have a similar, universal vision for arts and culture – valuable and accessible to everyone, regardless of ability to pay. It would finally position inclusion and representation at the core of everything we do. And is it really so outlandish to imagine a world in which all activities in the subsidised arts are available free of charge?
If we disrupt the transactional models of work, we can start to build something that is truly indispensable to people’s lives.
As an NHS commissioner, I used to rely heavily on local public health data to decide how to invest public funds. This is because a rural, elderly population requires different services from a young, urban one. It’s no different in the arts.
We can and should be more responsive to local priorities and be directly accountable to local community groups. The unique brilliance of the arts is that we can deliver against the widest range of social agendas: inequality, well-being, inclusion and education. We just need to be clear what our creative activities are designed to achieve and work with our partners to better measure our effectiveness.
There is little time now for rehashing old arguments of high versus low art. By necessity, a new unifying language of excellence and effectiveness would underpin everything we do.
Most of our current public arts funding goes to larger organisations, which simply isn’t the way to deliver universal access. But we should guard against simplistic solutions. Taking money from organisations and giving it to freelancers won’t magically solve our problems. A healthy infrastructure will always require large, well-funded organisations.
In the NHS our largest hospitals are the uber-specialists – while most funding goes to a swathe of grassroots generalists such as GPs, dentists and pharmacists. But we do the opposite in the arts, expecting the smallest companies to be specialists and demanding the largest dabble in everything.
Yes, we should redistribute funding from our largest institutions, but we should also ask them to do less, and to focus on the national activities only they can do at their scale. Then we can invest more heavily in a ‘generalist’ grassroots infrastructure that is hyper-responsive to local needs.
Nimble institutions and more flexible arts spaces will serve our communities better than what we have now.
The biggest risk for our sector is we all hold on to the bits we feel most passionate about and refuse to compromise
We know instinctively that artists and creative practitioners are the medical professionals of our industry. They have the invaluable specialist skills and expertise that is at the heart of our work.
To benefit from public subsidy, creative practitioners would have to accept that their contribution will be assessed against the broad social and public benefits the National Arts Service must strive for. But in return, we would have a sector in which empowering, valuing and properly remunerating creative practitioners would be part of our DNA.
NHS branding is exceptional. We can all ‘clap for the NHS’ because those three letters effectively encompass a bewildering range of organisations, practitioners and services. But NHS unity and collaboration extends way beyond a logo: shared employment rules, shared services and shared standards.
Like the NHS, our National Arts Service could behave like a single employer, offering consistent terms and conditions across organisations. This means the contrasts between working in the largest organisations to the smallest would be much less stark than now.
Moreover, by unifying and standardising our different functions, the National Arts Service could make dramatic cost savings in terms of joint procurement or shared services. Finally, we will be able to establish common, world-class standards for inclusion, access, participation, co-creation and safeguarding – and have better systems for sharing learning on the very best we do.
Currently, our sector is making the case to government for investment in terms of our economic importance, or the contribution of the arts to public life.
I don’t think this is nearly enough. I believe we can achieve much more if we present to the public a ‘new deal for the arts’: a thrilling new vision for a universal and accountable National Arts Service.
This is just my version, heavily influenced by my experiences of working in the NHS for 15 years. Some bits will be toxic to people I know. But there is a much stronger, collective version out there that can be widely owned. We just need to use this invaluable time to piece it together.
The biggest risk for our sector is we all hold on to the bits we feel most passionate about and refuse to compromise. There are lots of things I hated about working for the NHS, but I was still proud of every moment because I was working for a vision that was better and more expansive than my own.
We can do this – but everything has to be on the table, and we must include the least-heard voices, from our communities and our neighbourhoods. This has to be the public’s vision as much as ours, so we can’t do it without them.
But please let’s not waste this moment. If we work together, we can establish something that will inspire all of us, not just for the next 10 years, but for the next 100. But the time is now. Today.
Tarek Iskander is artistic director of Battersea Arts Centre
Theatre is in dire straits, and in urgent need of support. We all hope that help is on its way from the government. But whatever support it receives, when theatre re-emerges from this disastrous pandemic, it will look very different. Now is the time to think about what happens next. That is what The Stage has asked people working across our sector to do: to select an issue that can be improved upon when theatre returns. The above article is one of 24 pieces in our ‘Theatre 2021’ series. There are many more topics to cover, and many more ideas to share. This series of articles is the first step in saying that despite this terrible crisis, theatre in 2021 can re-emerge, and in many ways can be better than before.