Public sector finances are not going to change any time soon, so we need to act to make sure efforts to bring arts and culture to those who don’t currently engage isn’t pushed off the agenda, says Jane Wilson

Photo of dancer in library
Seke Chimutengwende ‘45 Dances for the People of Ham’, Dance in Libraries 2013, Richmond upon Thames

The case studies presented in this feature on local authorities tell a story of high-quality innovation, using evidence effectively and appropriately, and most importantly working through arts and culture to make a difference to people’s lives. No local authority arts officer believes that the arts are purely instrumental (and I hope that the instrumental/intrinsic divide is well behind us now), but all of us working in and with local authorities know that if we are to make the case for the importance of arts and culture we have to do it in the context of the current priorities for the public sector.

The level of innovation and creative thinking that is taking place within the remaining sector is arguably without precedent

For local authorities these vary by location, but transforming services to deliver savings is high on the agenda everywhere, as are the twin challenges of adult social care and either stimulating or maintaining economic growth. Sitting behind that understanding is a developing body of knowledge, good practice, research and networks, supported by projects such as Arts Council England’s Cultural Commissioning Programme, by professional bodies such as Arts Development UK and Chief Culture and Leisure Officers Association (cCLOA), and increasingly by academic institutions.

The 2015 Arts Development UK arts investment survey tells a slightly different tale. Establishment posts have dropped by nearly two thirds in the past seven years (from 5,600 to 2,000), and one third of authorities have no dedicated arts post or arts service at all. From responding authorities over 40% of services have been restructured in the past two years, and one in four is expecting major cuts. The level of normalisation in this decline came home to me when I saw that 7% of respondents were expecting an increase in funding and my initial thought was that was quite encouraging.

So, what does this mean? The division we first identified some time ago between authorities that were able to maintain an arts service and those who were not is becoming more marked. All of the good practice, knowledge and networks can only be transformative where there are knowledgeable, passionate advocates able to make the arguments and drive forward change.

Further into the detail of the survey, there is another warning sign. Revenue spending on buildings, theatres and venues has held up, but the funding for arts grants and projects has dropped further. When budgets are under pressure, grants and project activity have always been at risk, but they are the very funding streams that best allow for innovation, providing the flexibility to move to a commissioning approach. There is increasing pressure on the services that are still in place to generate income, and almost inevitably that reduces the room for risk-taking, including support for new initiatives and different ways of working.

There are now significant areas of the UK, particularly in England, with no local strategic focus on the arts, where it is up to small individual arts organisations to take the message to key individuals in planning, public health, education and economic development (and there is a significant overlap between places with a strong concentration of larger arts organisations and those with local authority arts services). The Arts Council England Creative People and Places programme is supporting structural change in some of those places, but even though the programme is a real and genuine attempt to change the goalposts, the overall level and relatively short-term nature of the funding, means that it can only do so much.

Even as we build the evidence base for the importance of high-quality arts engagement in supporting individuals and communities, there is a real risk that instead of moving towards universal entitlement, realistic opportunities to take part in the arts will become more and more dependent on where you live and what you earn. High-quality arts engagement for disenfranchised individuals and communities is coming with an increasingly monetised price tag, and unless there is an institution willing to pay for them to do otherwise, arts organisations are having to focus on those already taking part. Although there are excellent examples of independent funders supporting this work, notably the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, the role of local authorities in funding and supporting arts and cultural activity with and for marginalised groups has been crucial. Putting it bluntly, reaching those parts of our communities that don’t engage at all is at risk of no longer being seen as an affordable activity.

So, what should we be doing if we know – as we do – that the benefits of arts and culture should be available to everyone? We need to recognise that we are in for the long haul. Public sector finances are not going to change any time soon. We need to value the professionalism and hard work of local authority officers who continue to promote and advocate the importance of the arts, and as we can see from the case studies, continue to innovate and develop new ways of working despite high and ongoing levels of uncertainty over their individual futures.

We need to recognise that geographic differences in opportunity to take part are very real and need to be measured and understood as much as differences based on income, ethnicity, class, disability and gender. We also need to celebrate and promote our successes – and there are still many of those, using every means possible. We also need to network and share like never before, not only because we don’t have the time or resources to duplicate effort unnecessarily, but because despite everything, the level of innovation and creative thinking that is taking place within the remaining sector is arguably without precedent. We need to build out from this remarkable base to make sure that it is impossible to ignore the unique and crucial role arts and culture play in our localities.

Jane Wilson is Culture & Communities Manager at Cambridge City Council and Chair of Arts Development UK.

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