Viram Jasani sees ACE’s rejection of the Asian Music Circuit’s NPO bid (AP255) as symptomatic of its ambivalence towards race equality and diversity

Photo of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy © PHOTO Akin Aworan

As a public body and registered charity charged with distributing public money to the arts, Arts Council England (ACE) is guided by its charitable objects, of which three are central to its raison d’etre: to develop and improve the knowledge and understanding of the arts; to increase accessibility of the art to the public in England; and to advance the education of the public. Yet the practice of taking its funding decisions behind closed doors, accountable only to a Government department that hides from controversy behind the arm’s length principle, belies its claims of transparency and permits it to apply its published funding criteria behind a smoke screen which masks significant and worrying inequalities.

When ACE rejected applicants for National Portfolio (NPO) status in March 2011, there was no appeal procedure to permit those organisations to challenge the ‘rightness’ of the decision in the context of ACE’s strategic goals and charitable objects, only a mechanism for complaining that ACE had not followed its published guidelines. Through solicitors, the Asian Music Circuit (AMC) made a complaint, but given that our grievance was considered by an ‘independent’ panel set up by ACE, paid for by ACE and which reported only to ACE, we were unsurprised that it was rejected. Although reports1 produced by ACE in the past year recognised that the loss of the AMC, with its large following, would leave a major gap in the touring of Asian music, and that the whole Asian music sector remains underfunded, the decision was not reversed. We sought to meet ACE but were denied, and were faced with no option but to seek a Judicial Review**. Whilst the judge was not without criticism of ACE, he could not quite bring himself to find against them, even though our solicitors presented a powerful and well-reasoned case. So while we have reached the end of that particular road and set out on a new one, it is sad that the equality agenda lies in tatters with seemingly no plans by ACE to change that.

When I sat on the Music Advisory panel of the Arts Council of Great Britain (ACGB) in the early 1980s, ACGB music hardly funded anything other than opera and orchestras. Jazz and folk were given peanuts and even composers got little support. Asian music hardly featured anywhere, categorised as it was under the term ‘other’. A national enquiry into the state of Asian, African and Caribbean music was set up by the music panel under my instigation and the recommendations of that enquiry were accepted by Council in 1987. These included employing more people from the Asian and African/Caribbean communities, setting up two circuits – the AMC and the African and Caribbean Music Circuit – and providing substantially increased funding. The figure discussed was equivalent to 4% of the ACGB budget – 4% being the percentage of the population then that was Asian, African and Caribbean. The target of 4% was never reached and the ethnic community fought each other over scraps.

Today 6% of England’s population is South Asian and in the March 2011 funding announcements, 0.7% of ACE’s music budget was allocated to South Asian organisations. A fraction over 1% of the entire ACE budget for three years to 2015 was allocated to all South Asian organisations. The African and Caribbean Music Circuit was closed down by ACE a few years ago and now ACE has withdrawn funding for the AMC – the most prominent and successful arts company in the wider Asian sector for 20 years – from approx £500k down to zero. The AMC created and opened the UK’s first multi-media interactive Asian music museum with digital installations and an extensive digitised archive of audio visual recordings with a Lottery award in 2002. This, along with other strands of our work, is now under threat. The Guardian called the ACE decision not to fund the AMC “madness” and many others stated that it sent out a message that Asian arts and music are not wanted in England.

The experience of Art Asia in Southampton over their 2002 Lottery award was reported in AP254 following the Private Members Debate in Parliament led by John Denham MP and attended by Arts Minister Ed Vaizey MP. This disclosed the secretive and shabby machinations of the Arts Council in their treatment of the Asian-led organisation. Art Asia was fortunate to get the support of their local MP. Our local MP is Angie Bray, Conservative; she did not bother to reply to our letters or emails. Letters of support and complaint on our behalf sent to ACE and to Ed Vaizey have all been met with a standard out of date reply. Vaizey ducked the situation, hiding behind the principle of ‘arm’s length’ government, and it seems that under his watch, ACE is able to eschew principles of equality, fairness, good race relations with impunity; its grand public statements ring hollow.

The South Asian community makes a substantial contribution to the economic and social welfare of our society and South Asian businesses are amongst the largest employers here. It seems that ACE is not in harmony with the essentials of civilisation and democracy, no longer interested in bringing diverse communities together in a spirit of tolerance, understanding and social cohesion. Theirs must be a different agenda these days.

*Including Arts Council England Equality Impact Assessment, p59, and other documents that are held confidentially.
**Asian Music Circuit v Arts Council England.

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