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In the past two decades, arts professionals have become used to change as the entire cultural sector, ranging from the national galleries to the smallest community workshops, has experienced a rollercoaster of highs and lows. So what does the future hold for the arts? Munira Mirza explores some of the key trends and challenges ahead.

You only need to remember the under-funded and demoralised arts sector of the 1980s to realise that a lot can happen in a short time. Today, we are witnessing an exciting revival of cultural activity, with the development of new Lottery capital projects, much-needed boosts in government funding in England, and a solid base of business support. Yet, despite the good news, there is still no shortage of issues and concerns facing many arts professionals. Organisations continue to suffer financial shortfalls, excessive bureaucracy and policy pressures. So what will we be worrying or rejoicing about in the next few years?

Social funding

According to the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), government funding for the arts in real terms is at its highest level in history. As government is the largest arts funder, this is welcome news, but it is not without strings. Since the 1980s, when faced with drastic budget cuts, arts organisations were encouraged by government to think more like businesses. Such an approach continues today with the onslaught of performance indicators, targets and cost-benefit analysis. However, the arts are now no longer seen as just economically profitable but socially useful in areas such as education, regeneration, community development and health. This newly perceived importance may have led to generous funding, but it has also resulted in greater control of how it is spent through DCMS.

As many readers will recognise from personal experience, grant assessors now ask artists the extent to which their project will help promote diversity, access, inclusion and participation, often frustrating those who would like to see the value of their work justified on artistic merit, rather than social terms.

Ironically, the provision of greater arts funding will create more opportunities to get into debt. Arts organisations are shifting significant resources away from core expenditure, such as salaries and administration, to education and audience development programmes ? no doubt under pressure from government policy. We can already see the worrying decline in spending on new acquisitions in some of our national galleries and museums, and in some institutions nearly ten times less money is being spent on acquisitions than twenty years ago.

Future funding opportunities will increasingly be devoted to educational programmes but such restricted support, no matter how appealing, is no
substitute for proper investment. In the case of smaller organisations, the appeal of ?quick-fix? money could well create more headaches than before, as projects wind down and resources need to be reshuffled. Short-termism is a chronic disease throughout the public sector and the arts are no exception.

Business support

The business community is now undoubtedly a major supporter of the arts, giving £114 million in 2001. There are also signs that companies are beginning to see sponsorship as more than simply a branding opportunity, as they increasingly want to support projects that can be integrated into their social responsibility programmes. Major schemes, such as Barclays Bank?s ?Barclays Firsts? programme, and Lever Faberge?s ?Project Catalyst? invest millions into projects that target young people or socially disadvantaged groups.

Despite such enthusiasm, business support is still bound to fall short of needs. As more funding becomes available for seed grants, the more new organisations will have to compete. To cope with the demand, a number of businesses are beginning to think ?local? as a way of focusing their support. For instance, a number of London?s major city banks already limit their community arts support to Tower Hamlets and surrounding deprived areas. This gives employees the opportunity to become volunteers, either as business advisors or in workshops, rather than simply sign a cheque. In future, fundraisers will need to formulate a unique selling point to businesses, by offering them direct involvement in their work if they are to succeed in the crowded marketplace. Such commercial pressure may unfortunately affect the priorities of arts organisations, possibly to the detriment of more experimental and controversial work.

Over the next few years we are also likely to see a trend that has exploded in America ? more businesses bringing artistic activity into their workplace. The decline of British industry?s competitiveness is often put down to the lack of ?creativity?, something which artists are assumed to have an unlimited supply of. The number of artists-in-residence will continue to grow, but more importantly, businesses will employ arts consultants to train their workforce in ?creative? or ?soft? skills, such as communication and innovative thinking. Arts programmes will also be used to create more fun work environments, now considered by human resource experts as a key factor in retaining a workforce. Whilst these measures will undoubtedly benefit smaller arts organisations looking for a profitable sideline in business consultancy, to what extent they will revive the fortunes of British industry remains to be seen!

Diversity and participation

Cultural diversity is perhaps the most rapidly changing policy area in the arts. The Arts Council of England (ACE) is actively promoting diversity throughout the sector and ethnic minority arts are thriving as a result. In the future, arts organisations will be pressured either by auditing, funding restrictions or quotas to demonstrate how they are working to promote diversity in both staff recruitment and a creative direction.

In the long-term, perhaps the most important consequence of the diversity discussion will be the over-riding question ?Who makes Britain?s art?? In the past, the emphasis was on educating the ordinary public to appreciate art produced by educated professionals. Today, non-professionals from diverse, socially excluded backgrounds are encouraged to be artists themselves. Behind this policy is a view that art empowers people through self-expression. This therapeutic view partly originates from the ?arts and health? movement but will undoubtedly extend to other spheres. The stress will eventually fall on how the ordinary public can interact and create, rather than watch and hear others. Whilst this attitude sounds democratic, it could also be used in defence of the corrosion of strong art education and the capacity to engage the public in challenging work. As students are increasingly being taught how to ?express themselves?, training in musical practice and art history will continue to decline in schools and colleges.

Passion for the arts

There is much to celebrate and look forward to in the arts. The public today has unprecedented access to a wonderful range of art, from highly popular retrospectives for established artists such as Lucien Freud at Tate Britain, to the experimental and international flavour of arts festivals like the Edinburgh Fringe.

Ultimately, the arts are too complex for a ?one-size-fits-all? prediction. Some issues will be felt more acutely in some sectors than others, funding problems will vary, and luck can often dictate outcomes better than any government policy. One thing is certain: as long as there are passionate artists and organisations, there will be an audience willing to be inspired.

Munira Mirza is an independent researcher and arts consultant.
e: munira_mirza@hotmail.com