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Arts Council: Relevance not excellence will be new litmus test for funding

Simon Mellor deputy chief executive for arts and culture. Photo: Philippa Gedge Simon Mellor, Arts Council England's deputy chief executive for arts and culture. Photo: Philippa Gedge
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Arts Council England has revealed it will now decide what to fund based principally on how “relevant” it is to audiences – and it will “no longer be enough” to produce high-quality work alone.

This was one of 11 points outlined by ACE’s deputy chief executive for arts and culture Simon Mellor during a speech at East London Dance’s 2019 Ideas Summit, which took place at Stratford Circus Arts Centre.

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These 11 points will be the driving factors for the funding body’s next 10-year strategy, which will be published in autumn this year and will lay out the organisation’s approach to development, advocacy and investment from 2020-30.

Mellor said the points represented “a set of trends or drivers for the next decade that I think any of you working in dance and indeed culture more broadly, are going to have to deal with, and which the Arts Council is working out how to address in its new strategy”.

He said: “Relevance is becoming the new litmus test. It will no longer be enough to produce high-quality work. You will need to be able to demonstrate that you are also facing all of your stakeholders and communities in ways that they value.”

Mellor added: “There is an entrenched imbalance in engagement with publicly funded culture.

“Less than 50% of this country engage with publicly funded libraries, museums or arts organisations on a regular basis, by which I mean more than twice a year. If that continues to be the case in 2030, how easy do you think it will be to make the case for public funding of the arts?”

Setting out other key issues the strategy aims to address, Mellor said:

  • The lack of diversity in the governance, leadership and workforce receiving public funding “remains intractable and unacceptable”.
  • Too many business models in the sector “are fragile and unstable and not fit for purpose”.
  • Most future public funding will be delivered through a “place-based lens”.
  • Virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality will see significant growth, and will become increasingly relevant within the arts.
  • There is an “urgent need” to develop new funding models to support independent artists.
  • The decline in formal provision of arts education in schools is an “existential threat” to the future of the arts, and it is important to engage parents in this debate to “really see change”.
  • Large parts of communities have “lost all confidence in what they view as an out-of-touch establishment”. Mellor asked: “Is the Arts Council viewed as part of that establishment? If so, how can trust be rebuilt?”

The Arts Council stressed that it has not yet made decisions about what criteria it will use to make funding decisions in the future.

Mellor’s comments come as the Arts Council publishes the results of a consultation on its 10-year strategy. The consultation ran from October 2018 to January 2019, and engaged with a mix of people including arts organisations, funders and policymakers.

Those consulted identified future priorities for the Arts Council. The top three were: that ACE should work to ensure that people from every background benefit from public investment in culture; that creativity of every kind is supported; and that the creative lives of children are recognised and nurtured.

The main suggestions to reach these outcomes included changes to the overall distribution of funding – to ensure it is better spread across art forms and geographically – and more support for individual artists and for collaborations and partnerships.

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