“Let’s create”, exhorts Arts Council England’s 10-year strategy, published this week. The title reflects how the funding body’s priorities appear to be changing. Its last 10-year strategy, published in 2010, was titled Achieving Great Art for Everyone. If there is a central change to be detected in the current document, it is the switch from ‘for’ to ‘with’: from delivering arts to enabling creativity.
Reaction to the report has been mixed. Ivan Hewett observes in the Telegraph: “[It] is sure to be loved and hated in equal measure. One thing its friends and enemies can agree on is that it’s massively ambitious.” Hewett’s column is titled: “The Arts Council is no longer fit for purpose – and here’s why” – he seems to think the plan will presage cuts to the “old high arts”.
But I would caution Hewett against despair, or anyone on the other side of the debate from popping the champagne corks too early.
The Arts Council has a long and practised history of making radical statements that appear to presage seismic change and then carrying on much as it had been before.
While this strategy touches on some excellent ideas (greater collaboration with the amateur and commercial sectors; a more representative workforce; more flexible funding arrangements; focus on talent development), not one is expressed in concrete terms.
In fact, the document is a lesson in hedging. Throughout, seemingly straightforward policy statements are followed by phrases that render them almost meaningless.
So, just as you think ACE has committed to prioritising emerging organisations and talent: “We are committed to backing organisations and creative practitioners who have the potential to excel at what they do”, it reveals that’s not the case (“as well as supporting those already at the top of their game”).
Indeed, the most revealing part of the strategy is the post-script by chief executive Darren Henley in which he says you haven’t been reading a strategy document after all.
“If a strategy spanning such a period is to succeed, it needs to be flexible – a guiding light, rather than an instruction manual. What we have set out is not an action plan, but a vision.” A strategy is, by definition, a plan of action. Henley’s slippery language makes the document sound like a beginners’ guide to spiritualism. Perhaps “Let’s equivocate” would have been a more appropriate title.
Following his lead, I will say: the ACE strategy could be a radical document that reshapes the arts in England. Or it could not. We’ll need to await solid policy announcements to see if ACE puts its money where its mouth is.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his weekly column at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith