This Monday, 27 January 2020, was a huge day for cultural policy fans. We enjoyed one of those rare astronomical events: Arts Council England publishing a 10-year strategy. We are entering the age of Let’s Create.
We’ve spent the last few days recovering, digesting what this means. While the new strategy doesn’t offer much in the way of tangible commitments to “do this” and “not do that” the document does tell us something about ACE’s current state of mind.
It’s a decade since the birth of Achieving Great Art for Everyone – ACE’s first real strategic plan. With its five goals and corresponding objectives the 2010-2020 strategy told ACE what to invest in and what to leave aside, what its money was designed to achieve and how it would hold itself accountable.
The strategy set the stage for a new and open application process to join its national portfolio. There would be change and churn among its list of beneficiaries. Simply proposing to make or show excellent art was not enough. No money would leave ACE unless it helped achieve its strategic goals. That was the theory.
Then realpolitik kicked in. Museums and libraries were suddenly added to the Arts Council’s responsibilities. Government priorities such as health and social care led ACE to invest millions in activities that were far outside its stated remit. Regrettably, its list of top grantees looks the same today is it did in 2009. Not very strategic.
Given this, it’s not surprising the 2020-2030 strategy Let’s Create is wide open and not the least bit instructive for what to start or stop doing. It’s agnostic on what counts as culture and cautious about how to measure excellence or quality.
It’s different in other ways too. The overall tone of Let’s Create marks a big rhetorical shift for ACE, with its focus on “the creative potential in each of us”. It feels like it’s been written for an Arts Council in a parallel universe: one where folk traditions, community arts, voluntary societies are on an equal footing with the big expensive orchestras, galleries and theatres.
Connoisseurs of cultural policy will know that alternative sounds a lot like the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, which was ACE’s wartime predecessor. As CEMA morphed into ACGB (as it was then) it abandoned support for local choirs, painting groups, am-dram societies, leaving amateur arts to local government, volunteers and the market. Instead, a post-war Britain was to be civilised with ‘fine arts’ delivered through big professional state-sponsored companies and a network of elite institutions.
Grassroots culture has thrived in part as a result of its antipathy to the self-appointed tastemakers and bureaucrats. Can ACE find a new form of legitimacy and revisit the decisions of the 1940s without scrambling a system that has provided 75 years of top-down art to the masses?
Austerity has broken our local authorities and Brexit is doing the same to our civic culture. For ACE to succeed it will need to dig deep into its own reserves of creative potential.
You can read the report here.
James Doeser is an arts consultant and researcher. Read more of his columns at: thestage.co.uk/author/james-doeser