Arts Council England’s draft ten-year strategy aims to ensure its own bureaucratic survival and reveals the thinking of an organisation that imagines it is in charge. It is not a strategy for the cultural organisations it is meant to serve, says Robert Hewison

Whose interests is the Arts Council's draft strategy meant to protect?

With its draft strategy “Shaping the next ten years”, it seems Arts Council England (ACE) intends to achieve a transformation from a country where ACE exists to help the arts to one where the arts exist to help the Arts Council.

This process has been going on for some time, but the document makes only one fleeting reference to ACE being an “arm’s-length” body, while proudly presenting the funder as “the national development agency for creativity and culture”. This reveals the thinking of an organisation that imagines it is in charge – subject, that is, to government approval.

The first page of the document states: “we are looking to shape a country”. Cultural organisations “must evolve”, “must” become more collaborative, and ACE will “require” them to prove their worth. Written in the first-person plural, this document is the voice of the bureaucratic imperative. This may be a consultation, but the document’s phrasing suggests that ‘you will have to do what we decide’.

‘Art’ means ‘funded art’

But who is this “we” and who choses them? Although it is “accountable to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport”, the legitimacy of the Arts Council rests, as it always has done, on its own circular definition of what the arts are: the arts are what “we” fund. Because ACE acquired responsibility for museums and libraries in 2011 it has redefined the activities it supports as “culture”. To the embarrassment of its own name, it has discovered that many people are “uncomfortable with the label ‘the arts’”. Though it acknowledges that most people lead creative and cultural lives of their own making, helping people to access “high-quality culture” is what the document is concerned with. The Arts Council’s practice of self-definition, whether it is of ‘art’ or ‘culture’ remains the same.

This document is the voice of the bureaucratic imperative… ‘you will have to do what we decide’

If it accepts this definition of its purpose, ACE has to admit that its previous strategy, “Great Art and Culture for Everyone” (2010), has failed. Everyone has not benefitted. The active audience for the arts is still lamentably low, or, as the document puts it, there are “widespread socio-economic and geographic variances”. Children and young people have unequal access across the country. The lack of diversity in the creative industries and publicly funded cultural organisations is as shameful as ever.

The art that the last strategy was aiming to achieve does not seem to have been that great either. ACE research reveals “a retreat from innovation, risk-taking and sustained talent development” among creative practitioners and cultural organisations. Publicly funded organisations are fragile and lacking in flexibility. Despite being accountable to the DCMS, and in “partnership” with the greatest obstacle to cultural development, the Department for Education, ACE has almost nothing to say about the real reason for this hesitation and fragility: cuts to government funding that are unlikely to be restored. 

Weasel words

So what is to be done? ACE’s response to its lacklustre level of achievement has been to invent three “outcomes” so inoffensive that no one would disagree with them: “creative people” – more emphasis will be put on helping individual artists – “cultural communities” – encouraging local collaboration – and “a creative and cultural country”. Are we striving for an uncreative and philistine country? Surely not.

These outcomes will be achieved by the exercise of three cunningly matched “investment principles”; in other words, this is what you will have to do to get the money. You must show “ambition and quality”. It would be surprising if you were expected to be unambitious, but quality is a weasel word, just as “excellence” was in the previous strategy. 

However, ACE seems to be moving away from excellence as it was previously understood, because the next pair of requirements are “inclusivity and relevance”. “Inclusivity” rightly means diversity, but from what we know of ACE’s thinking, “relevance” means that it will no longer be enough to do excellent work; the work will also have to be “valued” by the local community. In practice, relevance will turn out to be as relative a term as excellence or quality. Finally, you will have to show “dynamism and environmental sustainability”. Dynamism, loosely defined in ACE’s new strategy, appears to be something to do with building “successful businesses” that deploy “a richer data culture”.

Imprecise as these principles are, ACE seems confident that it can translate them into that dreaded term from the New Labour years – “targets”. Although the document pays lip service to partnership, the bureaucratic imperative is clear. “If these targets are not met” organisations will be held to account, ACE warns – without saying what the targets or the accountability measures will be. The message gleaned from this is ‘you work for us’ and must meet “our” outcomes, priorities, investment principles and performance measures. 

ACE says it cannot continue to operate in the ways it always has done, but that is exactly what it intends to do. It will retain its current structure, and there is no suggestion that it will question its own governance or reduce the accounting burden that its desire for data has imposed on those fortunate enough to be funded. ACE claims that “Shaping the next ten years” is only a draft strategy. In reality, it is a strategy for its own bureaucratic survival. It is not a strategy for the cultural organisations ACE is meant to serve. 
     
Robert Hewison is a British cultural historian and commentator on the arts

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Comments

Excellent analysis - it's good to get a perspective on how these strategies have developed over the years, ie. not much. Data and bean counting is anathema to people fired by creative passion and risk-taking.

This is a trenchant analysis, brilliantly argued. I wonder what is to be done...

Excellent analysis - the Arts Council is seemingly in a constant state of renewal but the policy objectives and debates remain remarkably similar since its inception back in 1946 when Keynes said "death to Hollywood". Essentially it has been trying to square the circle of supporting art forms with tax payers money drawn from everybody have a limited audience. In this context the constant themes of access to the arts and expanding audiences always means bringing often reluctant members of the general public into contact with whatever ACE feels should be supported. Not surprisingly many of the general public say no thanks and carry on streaming Netflix, listening to Spotify and generally engaging in art forms which ACE neither supports or is that interested in. This isn't to say that what ACE supports isn't valuable, to those of us interested in visual arts the country would be a sad place if we had to rely solely on philanthropy and sponsorship but ACE is almost be definition an elitist organisation and as such will be forever trapped in debates about participation versus excellence, etc. The one sure thing as Hewison suggests that ACE has been really good at it is ensuring its own survival.