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Andrew Pinnock, a former Arts Council officer, thinks it’s time for an honest review of our national development agency for creativity and culture, based on truthful foundations.

Image of Lenin

Thespoondragon/Creative Commons

Once again, Arts Council England (ACE) is under government-initiated review. It happens every few years, sometimes to remind Arts Council insiders where the limits of their quasi-autonomy lie and sometimes to assure artists and arts organisations de-prioritised or harassed by the Arts Council that government ministers share their pain. 

The latest review may be intended, in part, to help ACE draw a line under recent policy and public relations debacles for which government itself should really be blamed. During her short term as Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries ordered ACE to support the government’s levelling-up agenda by taking money away from London-based grant recipients and spreading it around the regions. 

ACE obliged. English National Opera could only hang onto its funding if it agreed to relocate. Sensible policy in some ways – perhaps there is too much subsidised opera in London WC2 at the moment – but it should have been discussed with English National Opera before ACE went public with it, and with people in the Manchester host community whose (real or imagined) opera deficit ACE had to say it was seeking to redress. 

Recent ACE advice to clients about political opinions and their incautious expression by staffers, freelance hires or board members had a similar government-dictated tone to it.

ACE’s relevance is not up for discussion

We already know what outcome the government anticipates. Arts and Heritage Minister Stephen Parkinson describes ACE as “one of our most important national institutions”. Dame Mary Archer, leading the review, thinks it “enriches our lives, enhances our individual wellbeing and maintains our national reputation for excellence across the arts and creative sectors”. And Chief Executive Darren Henley “welcome[s the] opportunity to show how we’re delivering our 10-year strategy”. 

Nothing fundamentally wrong then. ACE could do some things better, and possibly cheaper, but its relevance as a national institution is not up for discussion. A review team aiming for meaningful results would want to start in a different place, striving first to achieve full consciousness of the political situation in which it and ACE are caught up. 

This article’s headline nods both to Lenin and to Abby Innes, whose new-ish book Late Soviet Britain: Why Materialist Utopias Fail (Cambridge University Press, 2023) compares the coping strategies adopted by political leaders in the former USSR as its economy collapsed with those to which their equivalents in present-day post-Brexit Britain seem to be resorting. 

“[T]he temptation for … governments in crisis is to embrace the anarchy of political affectation and misdirection, to make promises they know they cannot keep, to start political fires they know to be diverting and, when push comes to shove, to simply make stuff up. What alternative strategy do they have, in fact, when reality becomes a constant source of embarrassment to their politics?” (p.374). 

Public realm is being stripped of value

So ACE – on behalf of government – claims to be “the national development agency for creativity and culture” even though it funds or otherwise acknowledges only a small fraction of all the art and culture actually developing under its nose. A circular definition allows it to invent success stories. If culture “mean[s] all those areas of activity associated with the artforms and organisations in which Arts Council England invests”, then culture minus ACE investment can never happen.

Higher up this chain of performative command, national politicians claim to be managing events and making policy choices that can influence events when in fact they have surrendered control to private sector asset managers and are now just sitting back to watch while what used to be the public realm is stripped of all remaining value.

This seems to be the nub of the problem. The ‘old’ Arts Council was one of many pieces of a public policy jigsaw meant to fit together to create a better future after the Second World War. An inclusive welfare state trying to provide decent housing and decent healthcare for everyone, decent education for younger citizens and dignity in retirement for older ones – taxing wealth quite heavily to raise the necessary funds – could justify spending some money on support for the arts even if that expenditure only benefited small and specially discerning audiences. 

No one minded ‘welfare for the well-to-do’ (as most consumers of state-subsidised art turned out to be), while more robust welfare arrangements improving poorer people’s quality of life were also being put in place.

Government expects grateful client compliance

Not much is left of that post-war welfare consensus after four decades of unrelenting neoliberal assault. Debate about arts funding priorities is beside the point in a country where 3.8m people are unable to “meet their most basic physical needs to stay warm, dry, clean and fed” (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2023). 

ACE’s vision for 2030 – “a country in which the creativity of each of us is valued and given the chance to flourish” – will be completely unrealisable unless governments are prepared to tackle basic social problems like poverty and inequality. 

ACE cannot admit the scale of problems like poverty and inequality, or their effect on artists or audiences or young people cheated of an arts education, because if it did the government would shut it down. 

Arts organisations funded by ACE know that government expects gratefully compliant client behaviour in return. Since ACE’s 10-year strategy is rooted in lies – and must be, to pass government muster – Darren Henley can show how he and colleagues are delivering it only by telling more. 

An honest review would sweep the lies away and give ACE a chance to rebuild on truthful foundations. Dame Mary and her expert panel have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to set things straight. They will in all likelihood be reporting to a new government and could, if they wanted, give truth-telling a try.

Andrew Pinnock is a professor in the University of Southampton’s Music Department, and a former Arts Council England Music Officer (1992 – 2000).

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Andrew Pinnock's protest is absolutely correct. I very much doubt that the review led by Dame Archer will produce more than a small cloud of paper. Something much more radical is needed.

Shackled to a10-year strategy rooted in lies - and with virtually no corporate memory - ACE is now utterly adrift in a post truth era. It has always had a mistaken pre-Copernican belief in its own centrality and overclaimed influence (as compared e.g. with the BBC). Most damaging of all is ACE's monopoly over distribution of the Arts Lottery proceeds, a massive structural error dating from 1993 rendered even worse by the erosion of local authority capacity in support of culture generally.

Andrew Pinnock is right on target but I fear Andrew is only scratching the surface. The problem facing the Arts is the sheer incompetence and mismanagement by the Arts Council and its current relationship with the DCMS. Throw in the lack of art form policies and a flawed strategy - Let's Create and you have a shambles redolent of Little Dorritt, "Whatever was required to be done the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving - How not to do it". in 2018/22 as well as receiving core funding from the Lottery, Arts Council England’s National Portfolio Organisations were awarded over half of all Strategic and Capital funding. In 2022/2023 £93.9m of lottery funding was allocated to NPOs. Then the Arts Council announces that ENO is to receive £11.46m for 2022/23 plus £24m lottery funding for 2024/2026 (subject to application) a total of £35.76m. The Arts Council has raided lottery funds to shore up NPOs. This reduces the funds available to individuals and organisations who do not have NPO status. NPOs are also eligible to apply for Arts Council National Lottery Project Grants – NPOs have the capacity to seek funding elsewhere. This is not a level playing field nor is it levelling up, it is discriminatory and levels down as many individuals and organisations will apply and be turned down due to the spurious reason of insufficiency of funds and that lottery funding has not increased – For the avoidance of doubt the lottery funding available has decreased as the Arts Council has awarded it to NPOs. Crucially it appears that the Arts Council and the DCMS have abrogated the core concept of “additionality. Secondly the Arts Councils strategy “Let’s Create” is fatally flawed. In January 2018 I wrote to the company handling the consultation on developing the 10 year plan “Let’s Create” asking if the Arts Council had undertaken an internal appraisal of the capability and the core competences of the organisation? These, are usually identified in an internal appraisal and eventually feature in an analysis of the internal strengths and weaknesses of the organisation. I had to write twice in February 2018 and the eventual reply was: “I have followed up with Arts Council England regarding your specific query about a paper outlining their strengths and weaknesses and will let you know when I hear back on this” One can only assume that as no further reply was forthcoming there had been no internal appraisal of the Arts Council with an analysis of its capabilities and core competences. The Arts Councils treatment of opera in their last funding round was a complete shambles – incapable and incompetent – which answers my query on internal appraisal. There was no impact analysis and no thinking of, what if? Furthermore, no thought was given to the fact that David Mellor secured the freehold of the ENO with funding from John Majors Government – which poses the question, will the family silver be sold off? Arts Council England then scuttles round and raids lottery monies to shore up their woebegone decision making with “special” three-year subventions for ENO and Welsh National Opera. The Arts Council needs more than a review whose sole purpose appears to be ensuring a five percent cost cutting exercise, with as yet no concrete terms of reference or how stakeholders can have their voices heard. A review that is unlikely to look at the relationship of the Arts Council with the DCMS and the use of lottery funds to prop up National Portfolio Organisations. It needs a root and branch investigation by the National Audit Office or better still by the Parliamentary Ombudsman or indeed by an incoming Labour government as set out in their recent arts policy. Heads should be rolling at the Arts Council and the DCMS.