In other countries, world-class artists can flourish to international standards from organisations rooted in regional cities, so why is it so difficult in England? In a speech given at the Westminster Media Forum, Adrian Vinken, examined how the imbalance in arts funding came to tip in London's favour.
Like Christopher Gordon, I was also invited to talk about the findings of the Rebalancing our Cultural Capital (RoCC) report, but once he joined the panel I decided instead that I would firstly urge you to take its findings very seriously, and secondly to consider how such a colossal inequity could have arisen in the first place.
I ask you to take the RoCC report seriously. I can understand Arts Council England’s (ACE) wish to challenge some aspects of its analysis but three things have convinced me that its broad conclusions are very sound.
The first is simply the reputation and integrity of its three authors. When faced with a contentious article or report, it’s often wise to assess, not only its content, but also the background of its author, to assess whether they might have an ulterior motive for making their case. The report’s authors each have decades of very senior experience in the cultural sector, in London, the UK and internationally. They’ve got no obvious personal axes to grind on the distribution of cultural investment in England, apart, perhaps, from a commitment to fair play when it comes to the use of public funds.
Secondly I refer you to January’s ArtsProfessional in which its Editor, Liz Hill, another highly respected professional with a ‘straight bat’ reputation, did a pretty convincing demolition job of ACE’s statistical defence against the report’s findings. It’s a good and highly recommended read.
And thirdly I would argue that the sheer scale of the disparity identified in the RoCC report between the per capita investment in London and in the rest of the country, a factor of 15 to 1, is just so colossal that even if the analysis was out by 50%, which it clearly isn’t, the inequity would still be too extreme to be tolerated in the long‐term.
So why are things like this?
Well, where did the institutions, the traditions and activities that make up the cultural life of our towns and cities come from? Broadly speaking they came from people wanting to enrich the lives of their communities and to improve the lot of future generations. It was a long established tradition that particularly flourished in our towns and cities during the Victorian era, when civic leaders, industrialists and politicians wanted to give something back to the neighbourhoods that they came from or lived in. But this happened at vastly different scales in different parts of the country, depending on the wealth, influence and political power available to each place. As subsequent generations of government, local authorities and philanthropists continued this cultural enrichment, that differential in influence and resource has been relentlessly amplified. For centuries London has been the location, not only of the political and budgetary control of the whole nation and, in its time, the whole British Empire, but also its corporate and commercial leadership via the City of London.
So the neighbourhoods and the social world inhabited by the majority of the most influential leaders in the country are around London, and this is where their personal efforts of cultural enrichment have always been concentrated. It’s hardly surprising therefore that the culmination of that process is what the RoCC report identifies: a situation in which London today corrals 82% of public investment available for the cultural life of the whole nation, whilst also consuming over 80% of all combined arts sponsorship and philanthropic giving. It’s only human nature, that’s the way people behave, but where the allocation of public funds are concerned, it’s certainly not fair.
The gulf between the clout of even relatively small London arts organisations and their larger regional counterparts is clear from just looking at their boards. A straw poll of three major London cultural institutions shows that 50% of their trustees are either MPs, Peers or Dames or Knights of the Realm. Most of the very largest regional arts organisations outside London have no such members on their board. These London-based organisations obviously wield vastly more power to secure resources and support than their counterparts in the regions, ensuring the playing field remains sharply tilted towards London.
I’m not implying from any of this that ACE and the DCMS are consciously pursuing a London biased investment strategy, but rather that the infrastructure legacy which they inherit and the strategic policies which they have adopted conspire to that end. Faced with managing huge austerity cuts ACE’s strategic solution was to deliver future arts provision via a national network of key delivery partners. This was entirely rational and understandable, but inevitably leads to a reinforcement of the status quo. Also, both it and the DCMS are staffed at a senior level by people who live, socialise and culturally consume in and around London. This is very likely to have a powerful influence on their view of the world and the judgements they make.
I was made brilliantly aware of the deeply London‐centric nature of our cultural administration whilst working for the DCMS a few years ago. The Department’s top tier was made up of directors with a responsibility for key areas of policy and national institutions. One of these had the title of ‘Director of Tourism, the Lottery and the Regions’. The implication was that, whilst their colleagues were beavering away on the really important stuff in London, this one poor individual, after they had sorted out tourism in England, and the National Lottery, should give some thought to the cultural life of the 85% of people who don’t happen to live in London.
Finally, some have argued that London needs the majority of the nation’s cultural investment, because that is where all of our world class institutions have to be based. They query whether truly great arts organisations of international repute can ever exist outside of a capital city like London. Well, have a good look at the structure of the arts in Italy or Germany, where the majority of cultural investment is distributed to the regions and the answer is unequivocally ‘yes’. But in England, where relatively little funding is available outside of London, major world class companies can’t get a foothold. The result is a continuous brain drain where new talented artists get a professional introduction in the regions, but are then obliged to head to London, like Dick Whittington, to gain access to the scale of budgets and creative opportunities that are simply unaffordable to regional companies. This is not the case in other countries where world-class artists can flourish to international standards from organisations rooted in regional cities, simply because funding of the scale necessary to maintain a world-class company is available to them.
This will only happen here when sufficient political will is brought to bear to effect incremental change over time in the distribution of England’s cultural funding. Not to level the playing field between London and the rest of England, because clearly that’s never going to happen, but at least to significantly reduce the current, unacceptably steep gradient which is palpably unfair.
Adrian Vinken is the Chief Executive of Theatre Royal Plymouth.
‘Westminster Media Forum Keynote Seminar: Supporting the UK performing arts sector ‐ talent, funding, partnerships and marketing 5th June 2014’ was first published by Westminster Forum.