As more and more local authorities reduce funding and staffing for the arts, how can we ensure they have the capacity to fulfil their cultural responsibilities? Jane Wilson shares her thoughts.
Local authorities have changed and are still changing, and as part of that change we have seen a significant reduction in the numbers of specialist arts staff. Some authorities still employ arts officers but many have no arts or cultural specialists at all. Figures from last year’s Arts Development UK survey of local authorities in England and Wales showed that 37% had no dedicated arts officer or directly delivered arts service.
A voice within the local authority, able to talk from a position of knowledge about the role of arts and culture, is crucial
In parallel with staffing levels, discretionary budgets are also reducing and local authority grant funding for the arts has declined considerably. This needs to be placed within the wider context for local authorities, which has seen a similar impact on a whole range of services. In other words, it’s not personal.
Transformation is top of the agenda for local authorities, and arts officers need to demonstrate how their work can support and even lead transformational change. We already have some of the skills and knowledge to do this, and although not always obvious from the outside, arts officers have become adept at making operational connections, picking up opportunities for the arts to deliver on wider priorities and building the partnerships to deliver that.
This flexible, responsive and sometimes opportunistic way of working is very effective and, where arts officers continue to operate, it is helping to build and sustain the role of the arts in local authority work, even when more traditional (and arguably more paternalistic) funding relationships are tailing off.
Externalisation can be seen as one end-point of this entrepreneurialism, placing delivery outside the local authority altogether. There are risks with this approach – and I’ll come back to those later.
This works very well for the short term, but there are new skills, new ways of working and some new risks we need to pick up if we want to look further forward.
Importance of datasets
Data and its use in public service planning is coming to the fore, with data scientists becoming a standard part of the local authority repertoire. The London Office of Data Analytics is piloting the use of local authority datasets to reform public services. Smart city programmes are proliferating. However, many if not most arts officers don’t have either the access to, or knowledge of, the kinds of datasets that would allow arts and culture to be a part of the mix.
This is going to become more and more of an issue in relation to making the case for the arts to deliver on those wider priorities. However, there is real potential to change this, looking for example at the developing Audience Finder datasets, and the significant amounts of ticket purchasing data held by venues across the country.
In Cambridgeshire, we are exploring the potential of the library card to provide a route to collecting permission-based cultural engagement data, and I am sure there will be other local examples coming forward. It would be great to see a national initiative to ensure the sector as a whole is able to play a coherent role.
Being able to connect effectively with public service planning is not just about linking up existing activity, but also crucial to demonstrating future need. Much of our cultural infrastructure came into existence through local civic initiatives going back into the nineteenth century.
Capital Lottery funding supported a welcome new wave, but pressures on public finance are having an impact here too. Although I was delighted to see a Cambridge project included in the latest Arts Council England major capital announcements, it was one of only 11 across England.
The role of local authorities in ensuring there is sufficient arts and cultural infrastructure cannot be overstated, and is one of the key roles arts officers can play. This work is challenging: it requires detailed, patient work and can take years to come to fruition. In other words, it is not the kind of activity an officer who has to respond quickly and flexibly to immediate opportunities can often afford to prioritise.
What is needed to support this work is the kind of effective planning guidance already in place for other sectors. The inclusion of cultural wellbeing within the National Planning Policy Framework was a huge achievement, but we have not seen the development of the kinds of practical support that would make it easier for arts officers to work effectively with their planning colleagues to embed arts and culture within local plans.
A local voice
The final point goes back to the risks of externalisation, and what happens in those areas without any internal local authority arts specialism. Local authorities occupy a unique space, democratically elected to manage the needs of a place, including the responsibility for cultural wellbeing.
A voice within the local authority, able to talk from a position of knowledge about the role of arts and culture, is crucial. If an arts officer struggles to find the time to develop a reasoned position in favour of long-term cultural infrastructure development, or learn how to apply the principles of data science to cultural planning, how much harder is it for the arts sector. It is made up of overwhelmingly small-scale enterprises, including those externalised services, that often have no choice but to focus on the here and now.
The policy of working with local authorities that want to work with the arts is understandable and makes the immediate best of limited resources, but we need to look further forward and ask how we can support all local authorities to maintain or develop the internal capacity necessary to take up their cultural responsibility.
Jane Wilson is Chair of ADUK and Culture & Community Manager at Cambridge City Council.
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