You may not know it, but for nearly 10 years, those of us who lead organisations that receive Arts Council England funding have been working within its over-arching long-term strategy. Its main theme was summed up by the slogan ‘Great Art for Everyone’, and its five principle goals were guiding stars for us all: creating excellence, connecting with diverse audiences, building sustainability and resilience, developing our workforce, and providing for children and young people.
But over time, as you might expect, detractors have emerged. Voices from new initiatives like Fun Palaces rightly questioned: who were the arbiters of excellence? And if it made those participating happy, why did art need to be excellent? Wasn’t the very notion of ‘excellence’ a turn-off for most people? A perpetuation of the idea that art is only ‘high-brow’? What’s more, why does art need to be for everyone? Is art diminished if it’s only enjoyed by a few?
Even those within the sector have, from time to time, voiced concerns about the potential burdensome nature of some of the reporting mechanisms: for example, how can we accurately measure the development of our staff or the diversity of our audiences? How is it possible to measure, say, the number of black, Asian and minority ethnic members in any given audience? One theatre, I heard, resorted to a head count. That would be an impossible task to complete with disabled audience members, since so many disabilities can be invisible. And audience surveys can only measure the portion of those who enjoy filling them in, leading to an inexact measurement.
Ten years is a long time. It was a sobering moment when the Warwick Commission published its findings on arts participation in the UK in 2015. The most depressing of its results was the significant decline in arts education in schools, as well as the overwhelming lack of diversity within arts participation. Despite all the progress under the ACE strategy, it seemed the arts really were the domain of the white, middle-classes.
Two weeks ago, I was invited to attend a workshop hosted by the Arts Council. As the decade of Great Art for Everyone draws to a close, ACE is thinking seriously about the next 10 years – and how it might smash the inequalities that surround arts participation.
On cross-sector tables (I was with a great group of people who ran museums, galleries, dance companies and music projects), we were asked to ponder the hypothetical challenges of this next period – and think about where the UK could and should be in 2030. It was an invigorating, passionate debate. Ideas sprang into life, long-held principles were challenged and the future held us in its thrall.
It gave me hope – through the readiness of ACE to accept its challenges (and, yes, its failings), its need to inspire the next generation of artists and to reach out to as many people as possible so that at least all kinds of art can reach all kinds of people.