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James Doeser: Six stories the latest NPO round tells us

Cordelia Braithwaite in Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes, a production that premiered at Theatre Royal Plymouth, one of the winners in the Arts Council’s recent NPO funding round. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Carefully examine Arts Council England’s national portfolio funding announcement and you’ll discover revealing insights about the state of subsidy – and the nation – today, says James Doeser

Last week’s national portfolio organisation funding announcement was mostly a story of stasis, with some progressive change around the margins. It set alight Twitter for half a day but it’s hardly likely to have registered outside the sector. So mild was the reception that those sections of the press that can usually be relied upon for a bit of spark and snark published articles that bordered on endorsements.

Counter to received wisdom, it turns out that zero is the magic number – the most common level of change for existing NPOs. As for the newbies, an additional 183 NPOs meant there were a lot of happy people making themselves heard. By contrast, the handful of losers have been rather mute.

At times like these, it’s essential to tune out the Autocue communications from Arts Council England, whose rhetoric is necessary and predictable, and all those successful NPOs who, naturally enough, are supportive of a system that sustains them. With that ambient chatter on mute, I think there are half a dozen interesting stories to tell from what’s just happened.

The first of these stories is how the sector has got used to doing business this way. No longer is this element of ACE’s work a matter of backroom dealing and gentlemen’s agreements. First there was NPO round one (2012-15), then NPO round two (2015-18). Now here we are – ding ding! – at round three (2018-22).

By now, the form is well understood and grant-seeking strategies nicely honed. The ACE-funded bits of the sector have settled into a rhythm. There’s a growing appreciation of what it means to describe artistic work in terms of objectives and outcomes rather than performances and peer reviews. People have learned the rules of the game and, overall, those who won before have won again. A success rate of 73% overall suggests there are plenty who know not to bother any more.

The second story is the one you’ve heard ringing in your ears since the announcement: this is about a redistribution (albeit a modest one) from cash-hungry London NPOs to new and smaller NPOs in the regions. It’s a move that was greatly anticipated and widely celebrated.

Has ACE been shamed into this or has it spontaneously responded to a fresh understanding of the nation’s cultural needs? You make up your own minds. The places dominating press releases with new investment or a substantial uplift (as the jargon has it) were towns and villages that had seen historically low levels of ACE investment or no NPO presence in the area.

I can’t help but see a Brexit angle to last week’s announcement. Remoaniac saboteurs such as myself hear these place names and the percentages of Leave votes appear before our eyes: Plymouth (59.9%), Portsmouth (58.1%), St Helens (58%), Sunderland (61.3%), Hull (67.6%) and Stoke (69.4%). Is this ACE soothing the minority populations in such places, telling them to hold tight, and that we can all hope for arts-sector-friendly electoral choices in the future?

The third story is about the National Lottery. Successive cuts from central government to budget mean that ACE needs an alternative source of funding to keep cash flowing to NPOs. Luckily, they have a knight in shining armour from Camelot. He’s felled a magic money tree and allowed ACE to dive deep into their Lottery reserves to supplement taxpayer money in this round.

Who would have predicted that Lottery jackpot winners would have included English National Ballet (£25 million), Welsh National Opera (£25 million) or Sadler’s Wells (£10 million)? ACE applies a general logic that Lottery money can only go to NPOs whose work includes a meagre 25% of activity focused on touring or working with young people. It’s hard to see this as anything other than displacement of taxpayer funds.

The fourth story is about commitments that might be hard to keep. Due to successive restructures, ACE has been shedding staff for more than a decade. A big jump in NPO numbers will mean more relationships to be maintained by an agency that has been trimmed to the bone. Add to that the fact that ACE is demanding more and more from those relationships.

ACE commits to accounting for returns on investment by way of things like audience reach, workforce development and quality metrics. This is labour-intensive stuff. Elsewhere in the system there are dramatic cuts to local authority spending, regional cash has long gone, and all that EU money is due to evaporate shortly. Everyone in this system is being asked to do more with less. Only an epidemic of gambling addiction will provide enough Lottery money to fill all these gaps.

The fifth story takes us back a decade, with ACE taking a leading role in sector development. Pluck an ACE annual report off the shelf, something ancient like the one from 2009, and it will mention all sorts of organisations that it funds directly to deliver sector support.

The whole idea in 2010 of having a strategic framework and a competitive application process was that this separate category of funded organisation shouldn’t exist. The cash machine and development agency sides of ACE were to be as one. You received money if you helped ACE achieve its goals – it didn’t matter if you were an audience development agency or a small local experimental theatre company.

Since 2010, there have been a few experiments in letting the market decide if it wanted these sorts of things (skills development, audience development). But the generous support for NPOs in the new category of sector support organisations indicate that little is being left to the sector or the market; ACE is stepping in like it used to do in the old days.

The final story is about a deferred revolution. ACE is clearly keen to redistribute more but the portfolio is an inheritance, and not entirely one of its choosing. In retrospect, every NPO round has been a masterful exercise in edging the portfolio in one way or another, with just enough winners to keep the losers from spoiling the party.

But a crescendo of voices has called for a comprehensive rethink of how and why ACE funds the arts at all. The Warwick Commission, the Gulbenkian Foundation’s civic role inquiry, the Cultural Value Project, the widespread endorsement of Creative People and Places, and this week a piercingly clear study from King’s College London called Towards Cultural Democracy indicate that a revolution is on its way.

Maybe it could be closer than we think. God knows what the country will look like in 2022, but further political turmoil is pretty much guaranteed. The non-existent arm in the so-called ‘arm’s length’ relationship means that ACE’s decisions are always constrained by its paymasters in government. Whether it’s an end to austerity, a Brexit-induced recession, a handful of general elections or something yet more dramatic, this feels like a portfolio in transition. Expect more to talk about next time.

Full 2018-22 NPO funding data

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