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David Lan: Arts funding reprieve is welcome but mysterious

The wait is over. Arts and culture have been awarded slightly better than standstill funding for the next five years in the comprehensive spending review.

It’s an extraordinary result. We should all be delighted by the way artists, arts executives, Arts Council England and Department for Culture, Media and Sport ministers worked together to achieve it.

Among those who helped get to this point is the What Next? movement.

For those who don’t know, What Next? is a loose alliance of artists and arts organisations large and small – theatres, galleries, dance houses, museums, arts centres, art schools, universities – gathered into a network of more than 30 ‘chapters’ spread across the country.

In the months before the CSR, WN? members created infographics, joined thunderclaps, wrote to local politicians, met their MPs, wrote submissions to the Treasury and explained the need for public investment to audiences, visitors and participants.

What’s unusual is that WN? has almost no structure. It’s a network, not a membership organisation. Any artist or arts organisation that wants to be part of it is welcome. Each chapter has a chair but no one speaks for WN? (This column is my own personal view of things.)

What keeps WN? together is generosity – the understanding that generosity of spirit is the precious substance art and creativity feed on.

We look for new ways to collaborate, help each other think, strategise, campaign, share experience and expertise, organise, get things done, especially those things that we can’t do – or maybe can’t even imagine – on our own.

What we couldn’t imagine is this degree of government appreciation of the value of the arts. It’s a great achievement, maybe a historic one.

On the other hand, ACE-funded art is alone in its good fortune. Cuts to local authorities will be deep and this is one of the major sources of funding many organisations depend on. Many councils now face impossibly difficult decisions about which non-statutory services – parks, libraries, arts centres – to lose.

Cuts to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and changes to higher education and student funding will also impact on the way the arts operate and on who our audiences will be. Where will arts and cultural education feature in all this?

After all, the arts and culture aren’t separate from ‘real life’. They are everywhere – the books we read, newspapers, films, music, yes, but also in the cut of our clothes, the style of our cuisine, in industrial design, architecture, the layout of our streets and our cities.

We can’t get away from them. And if our schools, hospitals, parks and the whole of our civil society is under pressure, the meaning of a standstill policy for the staging of plays and the display of paintings becomes hard to understand.

It’s very welcome – of course it is. But it’s mysterious. It may take a while to really understand what it means.

Read more about What Next [1]