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.

Photo of a woman painting
There seems to be a huge imbalance between how big and small organisations are handled, let alone individual artists

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.


I belong to an artist led group. Quite often artists are the only people not being paid when we attend various events. The blatant nepotism and contempt for artists from the Arts Council has led us never to apply to them for funding. It simply isn't worth the time. I would like to see the whole sick show closed down and the culture vultures made to get proper jobs.

Every month my e-mail account is bombarded by arts events with a title similar in theme to "Supporting the artist", or "Working in the arts", or "Funding the Arts", these events usually cost me, the struggling artist, between £10 - £25 to attend. I have attended some of these events (depending on the speakers) in the hope of networking, or learning some vital piece of information, finding a new avenue, or perhaps landing some freelance work over the coffee breaks. I am always disappointed... The packed conference rooms tend to always have an absence of any artists, the speakers often tend to be arts organisations themselves, or "experts in social media" who work with arts organisations - I can't recollect a time when I ever saw an artist as one of the main speakers at these events. However there are always plenty of arts officers present, other arts organisations, museums, colleges and university representatives. Often I am the only artist in the room (I know because I ask people to raise their hand in the Q & A). When I ask the people present if they can access "the social media" they have just learnt about from the expert, the same social media they insist the artist engages with - I'd approximate 95% of them say no, "it's not allowed at work - it's blocked". I spoke to representatives from one organisation who told me they worked in the admin department of their arts organisation, they had no capacity to commission an artist and they never met artists in their role. When I asked them why they were at the event they laughed saying "We were asked if we could come by our boss and we fancied a day out".... I am not saying these events shouldn't happen, but maybe they could be balanced by up by registering some artists with free tickets, and/or by asking a few successful artists to speak about their opinions, their work, their success stories and some of their frustrations about working in the arts.

I could probably easily reel off ten pages of instances of bad judgement, nepotism, cronyism, inflated egos, hypocrisy etc relating to ACE decision making / inertia / apathy and disinterest - all fairly small scale in my own humble experience - but symptomatic of a system that is chasing it's own tail without a paddle.. e.g. they trumpet the ambition for innovative, risk-taking, bold work that creates new partnerships, cross directorate working, new collaborations, across two countries, community involvement, wide participation, new work in new areas ( i.e. those 'deprived' of the arts ) artist led, etc etc - yet when offered such a programme of work retort that it 'seems a bit ambitious'. Or similarly complain that the project has given them too much information to read ( i.e. we've done too much research ) Or that it doesn't seem sustainable ( it's a one off pilot ! ) Or that seeing a one off show - comment it's 'not properly cooked ' and then, when they do reluctantly give you 25% of the money you need ( so you can 'pilot' the idea / project ) they don't even bother to come and see any of it ! And then you discover two country's respective Arts Councils don't even talk to each other - so we end up doing the matchmaking and the donkey work to get them to meet and exchange possibilities.. And please don't get me started on London 2012 / The Legacy Trust etc - their lack of transparency, nepotism, total lack of support for where it should be... I should have moved to France 30 years ago.. double the investment in the arts, and then some... The French actually BELIEVE in culture as a force for good... when there's a crisis - they don't cut the Arts - they call for artists to help them think it though and reflect on how to get through it. The only thing that keeps me going is when I see the results and I see how it works and how good work can actually, tangibly, transform lives, places, people... But I have had enough of cajoling pitiful amounts of money from what sometimes feels like a bunch of jobsworths. There are some good people, but they're hamstrung by institutionalised thinking and the London elite.

adding to Established Art's comment. I always liked the event where instead of name badges people displayed their annual income and their line of work.I too go to many event where the only people not getting paid to be there are the artists.