As we move into a new financial year, the consequences of the Arts Council England (ACE) National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) decisions continue, and their implications start to be fully understood. The clarity and determination of many sector leaders as they seek once again to innovate and find new ways of delivering their work in straightened times is impressive.
What I find challenging is giving my response to the ongoing questions as to what I think of the decisions themselves – to which I can only respond that I simply don’t know what the strategy is trying to achieve.
I come from the northwest of England, spend my time between London and Lancashire and work with hundreds of cultural organisations across the UK and Ireland, and seeing the financial disparities organisations and the communities they serve face, has led me to long be an advocate of the need for a redistribution of funding in terms of representation of cultures, communities and place. However, I have always assumed that when this finally happened, there would be a systematic approach, a coherent policy that enabled a transparency of decision making and whilst I may not like the resulting decisions on whether to fund a particular organisation or not, that I would at least understand the basis on which they were made. The challenge now is that whilst ‘Let’s Create’ outlines general ideas of representation and redistribution, what it doesn’t take is the tough decisions as to what it is we are trying to do, for who, and therefore what the best approach might be. As a result, it lacks a coherent direction and purpose which means decision making is not transparent.
Of course, funded culture in England as we understand it today may have emerged from the same impetus at the end of the Second World War as our health, education and justice systems, led by the first Minister for the Arts, Jennie Lee, the unsung wife of Nye Bevan, but funding for culture was never distributed in the same way as these other public services, by head of population; a funding formula was never put in place. Even in the first White Paper for the Arts, written by Jennie Lee in 1965, decentralisation is a key theme. Whilst Nadine Dorries’ specific requirements as to redistribution may have come at the eleventh hour, nobody can suggest that there wasn’t time to put a plan in place.
The way in which we operate our cultural organisations has long been marred by the withholding of power. Many organisations have already taken great strides in addressing these issues. If we are to win the confidence and respect of the people we serve, we must be humble, we must be transparent as to the basis on which each decision is made and be prepared to stand by those decisions. It is by coalescing around a shared idea and letting go of power and seeking transparency that we can find new direction and strength as a cultural sector.