The UK’s Arts world Is Scrapping Over Funding. It’s A Distraction

July’s election has sent Britain into a spin, but for Mary Archer, charged with reporting on the fitness for purpose of Arts Council England (ACE), it is particularly tricky. For that is the month when her report was expected to be delivered to ministers, in preparation for publication in the autumn.

All public bodies are rightly road-tested every few years to ensure that they are giving value for public money. But the remit for Dame Mary – a scientist and the wife of the former Tory party deputy chair Jeffrey Archer – is more than usually political. Arts funding has collapsed under the Conservatives, who have also pursued culture wars. Her report comes at a moment of profound dissonance, nearly halfway through Let’s Create, a 10-year ACE plan to spread the arts more widely, and 18 months into a funding term which attempted to put that plan into action while also complying with a government instruction to cut spending in London by £24m.

Lobbying on all sides has been intense. The Arts Council was set up as an arm’s-length organisation, funded by government but with the power to determine its own strategy. Questions have been raised as to whether it has been pursuing the right course, with some critics suggesting that it has prioritised wider representation over artistic excellence, while others complain that its systems are too ponderous to offer the support they need at a time when, through no fault of their own, they have been lurching from one crisis to another.

The classical music sector feels particularly aggrieved, rallying behind its highest-profile casualty, English National Opera, which – after a period of hard bargaining – will for the next five years lead a dual life between its old London home, the Coliseum, and Manchester. The deep fears among classical musicians that “nobody is listening to us” at a time of exceptional hardship were articulated last year by John Gilhooly, chairman of the Royal Philharmonic Society, who suggested that ACE should recognise that “for the entire nation to prosper we need London to prosper”, and that it should adapt its levelling up strategy “to embrace this new landscape”.

In the other camp, an open letter to Dame Mary last week, signed by 249 arts leaders representing 220 organisations around the country – including many from London – made a case broadly in favour of the current policy, while voicing their own fears of a “concerted effort” in some quarters to give the impression that the arts world was in open revolt against ACE.

The anxiety on both sides is understandable. But the reality is that they are all scrapping over crumbs when the real betrayal is the state’s paltry investment in the arts. This includes the music education that would provide new audiences for orchestras and opera companies.

Even ACE’s staunchest supporters agree that there is room for improvement in some of its communication systems, but its new crop of client organisations need time to demonstrate that excellence comes in many forms. It would be a disaster for everyone if the foundational principle of arm’s-length funding, free from political whim and the short-termism of the political cycle, was undercut. The timing of Dame Mary’s report – commissioned in one era and delivered in another – makes this point very starkly. The hope must be that it lands in a more enlightened political landscape.

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