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Arts Council England has made a serious mistake – and its effects will be felt nationwide

2 December 2022

From the December 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

On 4 November, Arts Council England (ACE) announced how it would distribute funding to what it calls a ‘national portfolio’ of organisations – that is, the organisations which will receive grants from ACE – over the next three years.

A lot has been written about this funding round. The press releases have focused on how £43m has been spent on ‘levelling up’ and £383m has been given to the North. The press has focused on the egregious treatment of the English National Opera (ENO), which, one day before the announcement, was told that it would receive no money if it remained in London. In the press conference, it was revealed that ACE and ENO would work together to help the latter relocate to Manchester. Since then, positions have changed and the ENO’s enthusiasm for moving to Manchester seems to have diminished. Part of the reason ACE’s decision seems so strange is that it appears to ignore that Opera North is based in Leeds, which isn’t exactly far from Manchester, setting aside the fact that this announcement was made without consultation. It seems like one opera company’s audience is being cannibalised to make a political point – the diversion of funding away from central London.

There is nothing inherently wrong with relocating funding to support organisations around the country. Indeed, the chief executive of ACE justified it by saying, ‘Talent is everywhere, opportunity is not’. If that is your starting point, it makes sense to reallocate money. But the truth is, talent never exists fully formed. Talent emerges and is spurred on. The arts are part of an interconnected system; they rely upon each other to nurture talent. To strip centres of excellence of their funding is not to redistribute financial support from wealthier areas to less prosperous ones; it is to break the rungs of the ladders that artists are climbing up and to obliterate the projects they depend on to survive. And if decentralisation is so important, why strip an organisation such as the Britten Sinfonia, with its residency in Saffron Walden and strong ties to Norwich and East Anglia, of its funding when it works so hard outside of the capital?

Arts organisations and museums have been moving to commissioning and producing work that is more and more interdisciplinary: opera houses are commissioning artists to produce sets; museums are commissioning composers to create sound installations. It is no longer adequate for the leading arts funding body of England to place organisations in strict categories that are neatly laid out in a spreadsheet. It needs to consider arts organisations as networks, joined in webs of collaboration. It is a problem yet to be solved by ACE that its funding decision favours buildings and organisations over the freelancers who actually produce the work.

Nicholas Serota, chair of ACE and something of a political adept, described the decisions ACE had to make as ‘invidious’. The fact that there are so many libraries on the list is indeed invidious. It shouldn’t be the role of ACE to support services that were previously paid for by local authorities. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that we now live in a world where the Barbican, the Donmar Warehouse, and Pallant House no longer receive Arts Council support. The Arts Council was set up in the shadow of the Second World War by John Maynard Keynes to make the arts what he called ‘a living element in everyone’s upbringing’. He created it to support ‘serious and fine entertainment’. The fineness of supporting arts simply on the basis of geographical location is questionable, to say the least.

‘Let’s create,’ ACE says. Well, it has. But so far it looks like it has created a mess rather than opportunity.

From the December 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.