Two years after The Arts Development Company was formed to replace Dorset County Council’s arts service, Mike Hoskin gives an update on progress so far.
It is now two years almost to the day since The Arts Development Company left Dorset County Council to be a community interest company. We wrote about it at the time in AP, when we had just won the Chief Executive’s award for Inspiration, Innovation and Inclusion. So have we inspired, innovated and become more inclusive since we spun out of the council as an independent arts development service?
First off, we still have lots of support from Dorset County Council. We have a four-year contract to deliver the service and that allows us to cover most of our core staff costs, while we get on with the innovating and inspiring. We were also fortunate in securing an early win with investment from Arts Council England’s (ACE) Creative Local Growth Fund, matched by European Regional Development Funding. So we are now delivering a support programme for small and medium-sized enterprises with partners in a local enterprise partnership.
In many ways our relationship with the local authority has become stronger and more productive as what we do and how we do it has become clearer
Lots of innovation brownie points there, which helped to make our local council representatives confident they had made the right decision.
A new model
Looking back at the challenges, risks, debates and discussions we have had as a team over the past two years, I feel a great sense of privilege. How often do we get the chance to re-examine what we do for a living, take it all apart and then build a new model using all our expertise, commitment and passion to innovate and inspire?
I am in danger here of lapsing into Boris mode and coming up with some pseudo-Churchillian things about all “challenges being opportunities”, but there is a sense in which this is true for us and we are all the better for it.
Local authorities, like all big organisations, are process driven – they have to be. When you leave and set up as an independent service you leave all that process behind. This can be hugely liberating. No longer do we have to ask a dozen people about whether we can do something – we can just do it.
But it’s also a bit scary and carries extra responsibilities with it. Some of the processes, like HR, finance and accounting and contracts, you have to reinvent for your company and put them back in. This time around there is no one to do it for you, so it becomes a learning experience. And you have to learn fast or things will fall apart. You also have to learn things you didn’t really want to, such as VAT returns.
The big fear is that by leaving the safe environment of the local authority you will lose touch with all the things happening there and all the people working in that environment. That hasn't really happened for us. In many ways our relationship with the local authority has become stronger and more productive as what we do and how we do it has become clearer.
What develops out of that is a stronger sense of equal partnership with other local authority services. We can deliver things for them without necessarily posing the threat of competing for some of their budgets in their massively cash-strapped world. Increasingly though, less is happening in local authorities, and the number of people working in them is diminishing, so this is less of an issue.
Our relationship with the arts organisations in the county has also changed, but on the whole for the better. No longer are we sat in our local authority ivory tower demanding things from them. Now we work with them on a more equal footing leading to a more inclusive relationship.
The biggest change for us has come in redefining what we do as a service and how we value that. Slowly we have moved to being an organisation that is less concerned with great art and more focussed on the creativity of people and communities. We have redefined ourselves as a social enterprise – a business that does good things for people – and this opens up a whole new horizon.
We are now more conscious that all we do has to have an element of sustainability so we test things out more rigorously on that front. Social enterprise and social investment is an under-explored area for arts organisations and we want to take a lead on this and develop our social impact measurement to support this. That’s innovation.
Finally, it seems appropriate to be writing this in the week when ACE announces National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) funding for the next four years. A big moment in the past two years was deciding that we would not go for NPO funding. Ask me if that was the right decision in four years from now, but we felt confident that we are exploring new avenues and wanted to pursue that and make a go of not being an “arts” organisation as such.
Is it the best move we have ever made? Ask me later but at the moment it certainly feels like it is.
How have the arts been affected by recent changes in local government, and how can they be steered towards a thriving future? Have your say in ArtsProfessional’s short Pulse survey.