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“time to change the numbers”

Sun 10th May 2020

Thanks for comments and conversations about previous blog which was about the funding and structure of the cultural sector.

When I wrote it, I nearly didn’t post it; to be honest I was worried it would annoy lots of people and I might never work again. (This could still turn out to be true.) More importantly, I was concerned it was insensitive to what everyone is going through. But it’s been viewed 7k times to date so I’m glad I shared it because people clearly want to talk about how we structure and fund things differently in the future.

This follow-up is a brief look at how Arts Council England’s investment could be used differently. (You should definitely read the earlier blog before this one, otherwise this isn’t going to make much sense.)

A different cultural sector

The following exercise is simplistic – but I think it’s worth doing because it helps imagine something different to what we currently have…

Next year, Arts Council England is due to distribute £406mill to around 840 organisations. Just over 21% of this will go to the top 5 funded organisations; while 50% will go to the top 50 funded organisations.

If, in the future, we restructured the funding of our sector, we could ensure that many more communities and artists around the country have their own funding, support and respect…

By using the same annual sum we could fund 3,000 artists and community groups in England at an average of £80k per year. Depending on what they wanted to achieve, some could receive up to £200k per year while others could receive as little as £20k per year (see footnote) and everything in between. This totals £240mill p/year.

As well as supporting 3,000 artists and community groups, we could also fund 500 community-serving buildings around England at an average of around £250k per year. Some could receive up to £800k per year while lots more could receive £100k-£150k per year; and everything in between. This totals £125mill p/year.

This could still leave over £40mill each year which we could add to Arts Council’s annual strategic funds of around £125mill to create an annual pot of £165mill. We could use this as a fund for artists and community groups to apply to; it could fund 3,000 projects each year at an average of £55k per project; or we could fund fewer projects at a higher average.

I said it was simplistic. And of course there’s a gazillion other ways to distribute funds. There will be lots of arguments for why we should not consider such a significant change to the sector; and some of these will make good sense. But I think we should ask ourselves who the current structure and system of funding actually serves? And how a different approach might open up thousands more creative and communal acts; celebrating people’s creativity and heritage across the country. What kind of transformation might follow?

Tarek Iskander recently called for a National Arts Service. What a great idea…

I think we can reshape the way we use public funding for culture by investing in communities and artists in a more equitable way across the country. If we do this then culture is more likely to be valued as a public good by everyone. More akin to the way we value good health in our communities.

Who gets to imagine the future?

Even though this is a challenging time, it is important for us all to imagine a better way of doing things in the cultural sector. Not just fight to conserve what we have. I hope conversations about the future of the sector will be increasingly open; with artists (who are freelancers) and communities given more of a platform; so they are heard by those who make decisions about future funding, or shape any potential rescue packages for the sector.

My concern is that the conversations which are most likely to define the future of the sector will largely be influenced by people who run building-based institutions. Or by those who are most sympathetic to this way of operating. My appeal to those cultural leaders, and to their peers in Arts Council England and DCMS, is to do everything they can to ensure communities and artists lead the debate about the sector’s future. We need to create rather than conserve. We have a choice about the future of the sector: do we want plan A, a patched up but damaged version of our current way of doing things, or do we want plan B, something different and something better than we had before?

Instead of hearing the ideas of artistic directors of national institutions, I would love to hear the plan B’s of artists and community leaders like Sarah and Naomi who run GL4 on the Matson Estate in Gloucester, from Dave and his team who run the Old Courts in Wigan, from young men and women from The Agency at Contact in Manchester, from Julia and Chris at the Shopfront Theatre in Coventry, from Tobi from the Black Ticket Project, from Keely who founded Lyrici Arts in Medway, from Ned from Company Three in London, from Alan at SlungLow and Holbeck in Leeds, from Erin and Jade at Doorstep in Torbay, from Saad at Home in Slough…I could go on and on. My point is that the future of the sector should be imagined by community leaders and artists; not just the usual suspects.

Footnote – if you think £20k sounds like nothing, then check out the Cultura Viva (Living Culture) programme in Brazil from 2003. It is described in a book called The Point of Culture: Brazil Turned Upside Down by Celio Turino, Paul Heritage and Rosie Hunter. Chapter 9 (page 99) of the online (PDF version) describes the Cultura Viva programme in which communities across Brazil were supported with £20k annual grants. Gilberto Gill – artist and Culture Minister at the time – helped to put the programme in place. Fancy having an artist as Culture Minister anyone?! He said Cultura Viva was designed ‘… to clear paths, open clearings, stimulate, shelter. Perform a kind of anthropological acupuncture, massaging meridians and spaces which have become temporarily unvalued or dormant in the cultural body of the nation.… It will be the space for trying new directions; the space of opening up to popular creativity and new languages; the space for adventure and risk; and the space for memory and invention’. The extraordinary impact of Cultura Viva is well documented in the book available online.


An idea from Ned Glasier

I loved these two threads by Ned Glasier of the brilliant Company Three. He’s talking about theatres but I think his idea can be addressed to any building-based cultural organisation…


There is a follow-up to this blog called Time to change the story posted on 23rd May 2020

Categories: #CulturePlanB Culture FUNDING Culture, POLITICS and the everyday My FAVOURITES

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4 replies

  1. Hello David. I’m so glad you’re writing this and I agree. In six years my theatre company has broadcast drama to 80,000 listeners, brought theatre to nearly 3000 audience members in studio and education/health settings (including 80 people who had never seen theatre in their lives) had good reviews in The Stage, Guardian and Exeunt. Yet in that time I’ve received a total of £2K in commissions/pay from large theatres at what broke down to an hourly rate of £8 an hour.

    I’m just not sure the “trickle down effect” happens equitably…and that same trickle down argument is a well-trod defence for billionaires etc. Big theatres will need to ask ACE for a couple of million pounds each to keep running/keep staff while not operating. Each 2 million could be turned into an annual salary (like a universal basic income) of £20K to a hundred artists in their catchment, who are able to demonstrate professional practice, community engagement etc. Perhaps some orgs could stay afloat by receiving a stipend from the artists whose work they give a platform to? It would completely reverse the power paradigm. Just some thoughts!


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