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For the arts in England, levelling up feels a lot like levelling down

6 November 2022

Like a small politbureau, the chief executive of the Arts Council England, Darren Henley, its head of communications, Mags Patten, and its chairman Sir Nicholas Serota sat shoulder to shoulder at a desk in the organisation’s Manchester office on Friday morning for a livestreamed press conference. They were there to announce their spending plans for 2023–26. The format of the announcement, which had been delayed by the kerfuffles at Westminster, suited the hosts. Questions could be asked only by email, so it was difficult to extract any useful information, even when it emerged that English National Opera, one of the big four of England’s performing arts organisations, was losing its £12.6 million a year funding in exchange for support to move out of London, probably to Manchester. (There was no mention of the cuts to the other three.)

The politbureau would hear no evil and speak no evil. It would not say which of the 1,700 organisations that had applied for funding had been turned down, nor which previous National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs are guaranteed funding for three years) had been cut. All we have to go on at present is a spreadsheet listing 990 organisations and what they will be getting. But there is no doubt that it represents a significant shift in how England’s museums, theatres, orchestras, libraries and other cultural organisations will be treated by ACE. The question is whether this is ACE’s idea, or the government’s.

In 2020 ACE launched a new ten-year policy statement, ‘Let’s Create’, full of unchallengeable sentiments about making culture available for everyone, and how everyone should discover their creativity: ‘Whatever creativity means to you.’ The policy, however, was swamped by the Covid crisis, and although ACE saved the day by extracting more than £1 billion from the government for a Cultural Recovery Fund, the spending decisions involved appeared to be propping up the existing order and existing institutions.

In February 2022 a new Secretary of State for Culture, Nadine Dorries, presided over the budget settlement for ACE for 2023–26. It was an increase of £43.5 million – but it came with tight strings. As Sir Nicholas Serota put it on Friday, the government ‘instructed us to take money out of London’. ACE’s ‘Lets Create’ was co-opted by the government’s ‘Levelling-Up’ agenda and, accordingly, at least £24 million pounds a year will be reallocated from London. ACE may claim the individual decisions are its own, but the arm’s-length principle seems dead and buried.

Among the fortunate to receive or retain funding, there are approximately 187 museums and visual arts organisations – the latter are hard to define. The transfer of funds from London can be seen when the Serpentine Gallery, Camden Arts Centre, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and the Museum of London, are to receive reduced funding, and the Barbican Arts Centre, which has an important gallery has been cut altogether. On the other hand, the Garden Museum, The Foundling Museum, Gunnersbury Museum, Mimosa House are newcomers, with a shift to moving money into the outer London boroughs such as Hounslow, Croydon and Deptford.

Museums and visual arts organisations will receive new funding in Derby, Slough, Bedford, Bolsover, Blackburn, Middlesbrough, Jarrow, Torridge, Dover, Hastings, Kirklees, Oldham, St Albans, the New Forest, Erith, and Rossendale, placenames that do not speak of the metropolitan elite. ACE appears to be showing a populist touch by taking on the Postal Museum in London, the North Yorkshire Moore Railway, and the Football Museum in Manchester. Not to mention the Blackpool Illuminations.

While Nicholas Serota told us that the government’s instructions forced ACE to ‘make some invidious choices’ – why, for instance, has the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge had its funding apparently halved? – chief executive Darren Henley claims that the results are ‘more reflective of England’. Geographically, that may well be so, and London still gets a third of all funding.  Arts Council does appear to be shifting from the classical view of what constitutes the arts – and indeed excellence – such as its first chairman, Maynard Keynes, would recognise, towards a less top down, community-framed model.

It will take time to work through the funding spreadsheet properly, but what is really worrying is not the headline grabbing winners and losers, but the large numbers of organisations that have had no increase in funding at all. At least one hundred museums and visual arts organisations have been left on standstill funding. In current economic conditions, standing still means a ten per cent cut. Few, if any, arts organisations have recovered from the effect on audiences of the Covid crisis, local authority funding is on the point of collapse, and there are fresh financial challenges in terms of the energy crisis, and a recession that is at least partly of the government’s own making. ‘Let’s Create’ is a well-intentioned policy. But, as far as the arts in England are concerned, levelling up feels a lot like levelling down.