The leader of one of England’s National Portfolio Organisations speaks out about transparency, whistle-blowing, the curse of arts buildings, and why artists feel disenfranchised from the arts funding system.
Howard Ignatius (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
In this pre-NPO announcement period, with just over a week to go, if I were asked a question like ‘can you give five quick suggestions as to how you think Arts Council England and the other funders might improve their service and delivery for the benefit of all, in order to achieve the target of Great Art for Everyone’, I might answer as follows:
1. Stop spending a fortune on buildings
It seems to be so obvious that it’s the buildings that are costing the vast majority of the money, not the artists. It’s a longer conversation this one but the utter failure, past and present, to plan for sustainable multi-use buildings – i.e. buildings that are useable as art and non-arts spaces, commercial and/or community, viable and entrepreneurial from the start – lies at the core of the funding crisis in our sector. And still they are being built: non-sustainable, loss-making palaces (planned that way), ensuring that arts funding will continue to be soaked up by bricks and mortar, fittings, maintenance, heating, repairs and refurbishment, rather than spent on artists. The non-sustainability of some of these buildings is the most STUPID of all stupid things. They are like the great country piles built by the aristocracy and mill owners, money-dependent to such an extent that they end up getting rid of the staff in order to keep them: gaping mouthed buildings asking for ever more money to keep them going, threatening as an alternative that they will collapse into disrepair. (I have worked in one that required £750k per annum in grants just to be ‘open’ yet had no money to programme anything, let alone produce anything or employ any artists – DOH!). The arts sector (at the top) is so terribly building (and shiny things generally) orientated, and following on from that is very orientated towards counting people through the doors of said buildings. Yet some of the most successful work in terms of engaging wider audiences takes place outdoors or in unusual places that do not burden us forever with upkeep costs. I also happen to think that some of the most exciting and inclusive work is that which is made for ‘non-arts’ spaces. Buildings are millstones, financially and imaginatively; not saying we shouldn’t have any, but as with other things no-one is addressing the balance. If I had a motto it would be ‘theatre/the arts should get out more’.
2. More transparency
just imagine Jeremy Paxman interviewing a civil servant who was responsible for giving millions of pounds to a private company that was in trouble but wouldn’t tell him who it was because it would ‘damage their commercial interests’
Even as the director of a National Portfolio Organisation I have no idea why some organisations receive so much money and some don’t; there is no source of explanation for this, no published reasoning. I hate hearing people whisper “oh it’s because they know so and so”, or “you know why that is don’t you”, or seeing what look like very ‘friendly’ relationships between ACE and some organisations that don’t seem to be the case with others. Utter transparency of reasoning for funding would help stop this. ACE officers should NEVER work for organisations that they have had even the slightest involvement in for at least two years. The ‘secret’ (public) money that is being provided to some organisations to prop them up (when clearly this must imply a failure of the funding agreement and business plan made at the time of the original funding) without the least bit of explanation is patently wrong. Let’s make a comparison: just imagine Jeremy Paxman interviewing a civil servant who was responsible for giving millions of pounds to a private company that was in trouble but wouldn’t tell him who it was because it would ‘damage their commercial interests’ if it were known that they had to be bailed out by the government. Yeah… this is what has happened.
3. An end to US v THEM
Or at least a recognition that it exists. I would link this to another theme of ‘less defensiveness’ (e.g. the defensiveness around the failure of the Liverpool ‘Column’). Both of these require better ongoing dialogue, more inclusive dialogue. Some clearly have greater dialogue with and access to decision makers than others – I’d stop short of a register of meetings/contacts but I think it would be quite enlightening to see who was meeting whom and how often. ACE officers should NEVER work for organisations that they have had even the slightest involvement in funding for at least two years – I’ve said that twice now. The fact is that people are afraid to say anything critical of funders because they fear that it will have a negative impact on their funding: “don’t bite the hand that feeds you”. This paternalistic approach is really, really, wrong. We should be working together; there should be a welcoming of criticism and dialogue. The present system sees a one-way assessment, i.e. funding officers assessing arts organisations. Why not open that dialogue up in two directions? Why not ask ‘so, how do you think we should go about funding the arts?’ – and I don’t mean in a survey form.
4. A whistle blowing scheme
I know of two quite clear matters of impropriety or lack of honesty involving substantial funding (£1m). In one case I would call it fraudulent, in the other deliberately misleading. When discussing these issues with colleagues and proposing how such a thing should be addressed I have universally been advised to say nothing, “because you know what happens to whistle blowers don’t you?” i.e. only bad things happen. Despite the fact that this is public money, the belief is that funders will not want such things to come to light or do anything about it if it did, because it will show their lack of due diligence (and yet MPs are, quite rightly, reviled for much simpler and crasser sleights of hand involving much smaller sums). Lies are told, personal benefit is derived, public money is involved. I have never heard of any wrong-doing being exposed, but I cannot believe that this is because it hasn’t happened. This situation cannot be good.
5. Do the maths or rather ‘Do better maths’
The relative numbers involved are sometimes so ridiculous that it can seem like people can’t really see them – there is something of the ‘Father Ted: small… far away’ lack of understanding of the relative perspective in the numbers. Just this week I have been helping a young artist working on a G4A who wants £2k that will really make a difference to her, i.e. stop her having to work in a bar in order to raise the money for materials. At the other end of the scale is the Royal Opera House with £26.6m per year in subsidy from Arts Council England. While £10k can enable a project that can make a huge difference, 10s of £millions are spent on simply propping up bad debt and bad business in badly imagined arts businesses (nearly always in buildings). There seems to be a huge imbalance between how big and small organisations are handled, let alone individual artists. A huge concern has to be that the people who feel most disenfranchised from the arts funding process and system seem to be… the artists.
This article was written by a senior figure in the arts sector whose name has been redacted. AP considers that disclosing the name of this author would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of the person concerned as it would jeopardise their ability to negotiate with funding partners.