Arts Council England’s ten-year strategy consultation

by Henry McGhie

Arts Council England, which provides significant funding for English museums as well as many other types of organisation and institution, has a consultation open on how it should be directing its funding for the period 2020–30. I put in a submission, and thought some people might find it interesting to know how I responded.

Arts Council England has identified a number of key challenges, but overall it was not clear how these had been selected, or how they connected with the wider landscape (Political, Environmental, Sociological, Technical, Legal, Economic considerations, I prefer ‘environmental’ to have the first ‘e’, rather than economic).

ACE statement: Across the population there are significant differences in how ‘arts and culture’ are defined, understood and valued.

My answer: Even within the sector, people talk about ‘arts’, which many museums and museum workers feel excluded from. It’s unclear how ACE supports science and incorporates science into policy, funding and support.

ACE statement: The business models of publicly funded cultural organisations are often fragile and generally lack the flexibility to address future challenges and opportunities, especially those relating to operating within the digital economy and within an environment of declining public funding.

My answer: The presumption here is one of declining public funding. That paradigm absolutely needs to be challenged. The cultural sector should not simply be going along with declines in funding in one of the largest economies in the world. That decline in funding underlies many of the issues that are hinted at in the questions above. Participation, in society and in culture, is easier for some than others. Funding is required to ensure that those who are less able to access culture, for whatever reason, are encouraged and empowered to do so. You really need to challenge the presumption that culture and society exist within the economy, rather than the other way around. This is especially important in a cultural sector, where people are recognised as individuals and citizens, with a right to participate in culture (as is outlined in the Declaration of Human Rights), rather than a consumerist, capitalist starting point.

ACE statement: Many cultural organisations are retreating from innovation, risk-taking and sustained talent development.

My answer: There is less and less funding available. Outputs are directly proportionate to inputs.

When asked which of four changes I thought was the most important, I chose “Culture and creativity make a positive difference to society, to the economy and to people’s lives. This case must be made more effectively, and demonstrated through stronger evidence.”

My answer: The focus should be on supporting culture and creativity. ACE should provide funding, easily, and proportionately, but should acknowledge that there are responsibilities to support maintenance and care and access to existing collections, rather than being solely focussed on new directions. Culture and creativity will make the greatest difference when they provide cobenefits for local and global perspectives and agendas. The questions could be stronger by making reference to e.g. UDHR, Sustainable Development Goals, Paris Agreement. The consultation seems disconnected from real world issues and agendas that the UK is already signed up to, and that the cultural sector will be essential in enabling.

In a further selection, I selected “People from every background benefit from public investment in culture” as being particularly important.

My further explanation: There is very little between the range of answers above. As in my previous answer, ACE funding will make the biggest impact on the biggest number of people by addressing contemporary issues. For example, climate change will impact unfairly, so that the poorest and most disadvantaged, both within the UK and globally, will suffer the impacts most. By supporting adaptation and encouraging maximum global action to meet the challenge set out in the Paris Agreement, and to which the UK has signed up to, will ensure that ‘people from every background benefit from public investment in culture’.

In a section on the ACE challenge of “Creative R&D and talent development are flourishing… Arts Council England will invest in organisations that consistently identify, nurture and support creative talent and collections expertise.”

I answered: “This question has been the first mention of collections I have noticed. The questions are geared towards cultural experiences in a rather narrow sense, as the experiences of those visiting museums etc. The consultation could benefit from acknowledging that museums, culture and collections are many things to many people, and that the diverse usage of them is a key strength. Also, beneficiaries may be much wider, so may be e.g. beneficiaries of research carried out on museums and collections, contributions of collections data to e.g. nature conservation assessments and nature conservation policy/action. Again, if the presumption, as in previous questions, is of declining public funding, there needs to be a sense of reality about how R&D and talent are being developed and supported.”

ACE identified the following key challenge: “Cultural organisations are dynamic, focused on the future, and relevant… Cultural leaders will develop the skills and expertise to guide and govern enterprising and environmentally sustainable organisations.”

I answered: You could have benefited from reference to the Paris Agreement, Sustainable Development Goals here. The UK is a signatory to these, the cultural sector will be key to there having any chance of success. ACE really must step into a role of supporting these. They already exist and are a tremendous opportunity and challenge, yet this consultation seems unaware of them as a context.

ACE challenge: “England continues to increase its global reputation for the quality of its creative industries… Arts Council England will invest in an infrastructure of cultural buildings that are fit-for-purpose, and used collaboratively for the wider benefit of creative practitioners and audiences.”

My answer: These questions are predicated on growth, while earlier questions were predicated on reduced public funding. Those two are not sustainable [together]. Nor, indeed, is a model based on growth. The question should, to my mind, be framed in terms of purpose, as having a sustainable purpose and commitment to excellence will be the measures of a cultural sector. Focus on a cultural industry will only drive exclusion, and a market-driven approach that will sustain and increase barriers to access to cultural experiences.

ACE proposed to ‘Prioritise the proposed outcomes’

My answer: These outcomes are almost all internally focussed. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out a hugely ambitious programme to ensure that poverty is ended, there is zero hunger, there is a prosperous economy, climate change is held within 1.5 degrees, and biodiversity is protected, all by 2030. They are set out as an invitation and challenge for all sectors of society, everywhere, to participate. I really strongly encourage you to connect with the SDGs and Paris Agreement, I am rather surprised that they are not mentioned here.

Finally: Achieving the outcomes

I suggested: Be more attentive to external agendas as opportunities, and the context within which the cultural sector exists.

Provide challenge funding to promote between nature conservation agencies and natural history museums.

Fund documentation as a form of digital access. There is abundant evidence that digital access enables use.

Focus on the SDGs and Paris Agreement.

Fund individuals and consortia, not necessarily institutions, as they are where change will come from.

Clarify support for e.g. museums, science

The Sustainable Development Goals were first signed up to, including by the UK, in 2015, 3 years ago; they have 11 years left to be achieved. ACE seems almost unaware of them. I put in a submission to the Environmental Audit Committee recently on the implementation of the SDGs in the UK. DCMS will not currently factor activity from ACE-funded organisations into the reporting. This is a missed opportunity. If ACE really wants people to participate in culture and society, the SDGs are the best agenda around to connect with. Climate change experts have said there is roughly 12 years to reverse global climate emissions. ACE should be supporting the rapid, deep transition that is required to meet this, the ultimate societal challenge.

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