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Charlotte Jones: national portfolio cuts are something to shout about

les-trois-mousquetaires-national-portfolio-cuts Theatre sans Frontieres’ Les Trois Mousquetaires in 2009. The company is set to lose its ACE funding next year. Photo: Keith Pattison
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As the dust settles following Arts Council England’s national portfolio decisions, it seems the right time to reflect on what has happened and to look forward to what this might mean for the future of the UK performing arts.

Clearly, ACE faced a formidable challenge to protect and consolidate its portfolio in the context of a series of real terms cuts while not knowing what the impact of the next comprehensive spending review will be (it is unlikely to contain any arts directed windfalls).

It also had to take into account the huge hit sustained by local authority partners. There was never going to be enough money available to fully realise the potential of the arts world and to create the opportunities that would have ensured that it thrives, renews itself and develops as it should. In response to that challenge, though, the solution ACE has arrived at is deeply conservative and creates pockets of small but significant damage to the confidence and health of the sector.

ACE has managed to maintain 670 organisations in the portfolio (an overall reduction of only 30), most of those on stand-still funding with a few welcome uplifts and a few strategic cuts. For the first time, it has published its investment plans in relation to Grant in Aid, Lottery and Capital at the same time and has openly used Lottery money to manage the shortfall in Grant in Aid.

[pullquote]There will be no embarrassing bodies to bury this time around[/pullquote]

ACE has also brought 46 new organisations into the portfolio. The Independent Theatre Council was particularly pleased to see Third Angel, Chol, Camden Peoples Theatre, MAYK Theatre and Wired Aerial awarded new funds and Akram Khan, Apples & Snakes, Company Chameleon, Dance Exchange, Extant, Motionhouse, Rifco, Hullabaloo and Theatre Peckham given uplifts. Not one venue faces disinvestment – there will be no embarrassing bodies to bury this time around.

I live in constant hope (and therefore continuing disappointment) that ACE will recognise the danger of the growing wealth gap in the arts. The ladder of opportunity is appallingly steep and most of the lower rungs have been removed, so the position of smaller organisations and independent artists is getting steadily worse.

Accompanying this funding disparity is a pernicious attitude and a communications deficit. I am still reeling from the unfairness exhibited in the different treatment of English National Opera and the 58 smaller organisations taken out of the portfolio in this round. ACE brought in consultants to conduct an opera and ballet review, which informed a negotiated 30% reduction in funding to ENO coupled with £7 million transition funding and extensive hand-holding to develop their new business model.

Where were the small-scale touring or community and inclusive theatre reviews that might have informed the completely un-negotiated 100% cuts to Red Ladder, Dark Horse, Big Brum, Rasa and Theatre Sans Frontieres?

These are just a few of the disturbingly unexplained casualties of this NPO round. No transitional funding arrangements will cushion the, almost impossible, task that these companies face in shaping a business model that is based on sudden loss of support. The dynamic, grassroots Save Red Ladder campaign leapt impressively into action and is gathering support for its target of raising £80,000 (enough to fund one professional production). More than this will be needed though to ensure the future of this vision-driven company with a proud track record of bringing radical, life-changing theatre to under-served, disenfranchised audiences since 1968.

[pullquote]It will be disastrous for the arts ecology if ACE continues this gradual erosion of its portfolio[/pullquote]

Long-term (even medium term) it will be disastrous for the UK arts ecology, if ACE continues this gradual erosion of its portfolio without developing an alternative. ACE needs to find an effective way to have constructive conversations and build relationships beyond the ‘NPO family’. An effective and reliable means of support somewhere between NPO and project funding through Grants for the Arts needs to be considered and developed so that new talent can be encouraged and smaller organisations can operate flexibly with some assistance underpinning their work.

Many exciting companies (such as Unfolding Theatre, Greyscale, 1927, Paper Birds and Tangled Feet) applied unsuccessfully to enter the portfolio.

Most have been living hand-to-mouth on project funding for a long time and need to progress. If, as I strongly suspect, NPO is never going to be a realistic option for these companies, what is their progression route? They, and many like them, are essential to the development of the art form and the sector. We cannot afford to allow the sector to stagnate and these artists cannot afford to continue to subsidise the sector with their under/unpaid work. ENO’s additional £7 million transition funding would have gone a long way to putting some sustainable support in place for companies like these. Since ACE, unfortunately, does not publish a full list of NPO applicants, we can only guess at the extent of the unrealised potential and unmet ambition.

[pullquote]Some smaller companies chose not to apply for funding[/pullquote]

Some smaller companies, after many years of ACE funding, chose not to apply to enter the portfolio this time. The Red Room and Hoipolloi took the courageous decision to cut loose in order to maintain flexibility and explore new pathways for making their work. Red Room artistic director Topher Campbell said: “While NPO funding is essential for many it also creates a one-size-fits-all company model that can work against creativity and flexibility in smaller companies. The Red Room with its multi-platform and art-form approach felt it necessary to explore a different relationship with ACE.”

Managing without the money is something they have planned for but staying on ACE’s radar is equally important – how will that work when they are no longer ticking the boxes?

Geographical reach was supposed to form a large part of the ‘bold’ new thinking for this NPO round – Rebalancing Cultural Capital, as the report was called. ACE created a strategic fund of £15 million to grow regional capacity and have achieved a small rebalance in NPOs from 51% to 53% expenditure outside London.

The desperately sad part of this story is that most of that rebalancing has been into northern building-based infrastructure at the expense of small companies who take work to people in their own communities. It’s a rebalancing in the wrong direction. Rural and community touring has lost out to metro-centric large scale opera and ballet. I am surprised that the opera and ballet review did not reach more radical conclusions – these are elite art forms and not, in all honesty, the best mechanism for delivering Great Art to All. Plus, they cost a fortune.

If ACE wants ‘cold spots’ reached, new audiences served, great new work made, communities engaged, artists developed, young people inspired… then they need to fund small producing companies, artist-led companies and independent artists – simple, cheap, flexible and effective. This may require a complete rethink as the portfolio becomes ever more cumbersome and immovable. Let’s start thinking before opportunities, innovation, inspiration and energy are irrevocably lost.

This year, ITC celebrates 40 years of supporting and representing independent theatre. It will be hosting an anniversary event at the Southbank Centre on September 16. This article was written by Independent Theatre Council chief executive Charlotte Jones.

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