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James Doeser: The Arts Council wants to know what you think, but will it listen?

Arts Council England chief executive Darren Henley. Photo: Philippa Gedge
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Arts Council England is currently consulting on a strategic framework. Veterans of the cultural sector will remember the arts debate: a two-year research and consultation exercise that led to ACE’s first 10-year strategy in 2010. Achieving Great Art for Everyone is due to expire in 2020 and so ACE has begun to prepare for its successor.

Has Arts Council England abandoned its dreams?

ACE and Britain Thinks will run a consultation, its current phase (which it is calling “the conversation”) runs to mid-April. We’ll get sight of the draft 2020-2030 strategy in the summer with it out for consideration in the autumn.

AGAFE marked a turning point for ACE, with its five strategic goals (excellence, reach, resilience, leadership and young people), but it made little difference to the shape and size of the sector. It perhaps had most impact in defining the criteria against which regularly funded organisations had to bid to become National Portfolio Organisations in 2012. Six years on, the portfolio looks pretty similar.

A 10-year strategy needs to be general enough to accommodate all manner of unforeseen circumstances, not be too radical, while pretending to signal progress.

Darren Henley, ACE’s chief executive, describes the current strategy as something that has helped “guide our investment and development activity” yet ACE has supported plenty that falls well outside this strategy. Expediency beats strategy every time.

In the mid-2000s the arts debate and the development of ACE’s strategy were part of a much bigger move across government to embed the principles of a grand idea: public value. Tessa Jowell (then secretary of state for culture) wrote an essay on the topic.

I can’t imagine Matt Hancock writing a weighty intellectual essay. Can you?

The idea was that cultural institutions needed to discover what role the public and relevant stakeholders wanted them to perform, and to develop policies and structures to deliver those objectives. The arts debate addressed a lot of big questions (What is art? What is the point of public subsidy?) and revealed the public wanted more say in how its money was spent and would like it to be spent on work that benefited as many as possible. It’s hard to see what’s new or different this time. I can’t imagine Matt Hancock writing a weighty intellectual essay. Can you?

Our sector is prone to amnesia, so maybe this is a necessary exercise in repetition. After all, who doesn’t love a revival? An old story told afresh with new players and contemporary staging. Yet, the plot remains the same.

Asking fundamental questions about what people expect from their national arts development agency is likely to reveal similar opinions in 2018 to those expressed in 2007. Maybe this time ACE will take heed, and the 2020-2030 strategy will result in a real shake-up? Those that want to get their voices heard should do so by registering on the consultation platform (aceconversation2018.ning.com). For everyone else, there is, inevitably, a hashtag (#AnACEfuture).

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