Attempts to level up the arts with less money in the pot has only left the sector worse off
The Arts Council of Great Britain – founded in 1946 as part of the post-war settlement – has been and continues to be, in its devolved existence, a great institution.
Public funding of the arts is a benefit to the whole of society. There needs to be an independent body that can make decisions about to whom and where funding is to be awarded without government interference.
The current controversies over funding have arisen for probably three reasons. First, long-term cuts to funding mean that there is less in the pot to go round. The past 15 years have seen the Arts Council of England’s grant in aid decreased in real terms by 47 per cent. Between 2009 and 2019 local authority cuts to funding of 37 per cent have meant that the Arts Council has taken on responsibilities that it did not previously have. In many ways the biggest crisis for the arts lies in the cuts in day-to-day funding, for which the local authorities are responsible.
Moving an opera company from London to another city is not necessarily a net improvement for the country
Second, Nadine Dorries, the former culture secretary, instructed that, in the interests of levelling up, money should be siphoned from London to the regions. Of course, artists should be funded in the regions – indeed we should go out of our way to make this happen – something that was formerly better facilitated with greater regional Arts Council staffing. But without the additional money to do so, this has led inevitably to the recent invidious decisions, such as moving English National Opera (ENO) to a location outside London (although the new National Lottery funding of £11.46m has given ENO some breathing space).
Third, there is the effect of the Let’s Create 10-year strategy introduced in 2020, which stated that “we want England to be a country in which the creativity of each of us is valued and given the chance to flourish”. This would be fine if there were a greater pot, but given the diminished funding, this strategy – which prioritises local communities (in line with levelling up) – is putting pressure on the funding of professional artists which should be the Arts Council’s core consideration.
There are two groups of professional artists the Arts Council should be concentrating on. The first is those artists who do not yet have the audiences they might have in the future. They might be at the beginning of their careers or engaged in experimental work that is non-commercial, but which may or may not become commercial. In this sense, the longstanding requirement of justifying one’s own application for funding by providing evidence of an audience seems to run counter to what the Arts Council should be about.
The second group involves those productions which are inherently expensive, such as by opera companies. Opera in a car park is a different form to opera on a stage, and it is worth noting that Germany, France, Italy and the United States all have significantly more opera companies than the United Kingdom. Moving an opera company from London to another city is not necessarily a net improvement for the country, and may well have the opposite effect, as diminishing London will diminish all of us.
The Arts Council has been put in a difficult position. It has now ordered an enquiry into the future of opera and musical theatre. But why? It should fund all the arts forms when and where they need it, and without prejudice. Moreover, we should be able to trust the Arts Council to make the right decisions, which also means that it has to be able to stand up to the government of the day.
Earl of Clancarty, crossbench peer
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