Arts Council England’s policy leads respond to questions from ArtsProfessional and the sector on its plans for the next ten years.

A choir performing out the front of the Fitzwilliam Museum
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Over the summer, Arts Council England’s Deputy Director, Simon Mellor, has been writing for ArtsProfessional introducing the key elements of the funder’s plans for its next ten-year strategy. Policy leads from the Arts Council have now responded to questions from ArtsProfessional and the sector on the draft strategy. Read their answers below.

The draft strategy says “we will ensure that our programmes benefit all communities, urban and rural, across our country”. How will the new strategy help develop a solid infrastructure for supporting the arts in rural areas in particular?

Paul Bristow, Director, Strategic Partnerships:

"We know that where you live is a huge factor in what cultural experiences will be available to you, and we want to ensure that rural communities are served to the best of our abilities.

"Touring and distribution are vital components of the rural offer and we know that people living in rural areas typically have greater levels of engagement with culture and creative activities. We plan to continue to invest in touring and other forms of distribution, especially that which reaches ‘underserved’ communities.

"We’re interested in exploring how we can extend that engagement to include even more people, what collaborations might be possible, establishing partnerships between cultural organisations, local education providers and services like the NHS. 

"We know that many of the things that affect people’s ability to engage with arts and culture, be that transport, the effectiveness of rural public services, rural infrastructure and broadband, are not in the Arts Council’s control. Therefore, we will work with government, in particular Defra, as well as local government and other agencies, to help provide the conditions in which rural cultural opportunity can flourish."

There is huge appetite in the sector for developing arts and healthcare projects. How will the strategy support arts organisations that want to learn how to progress these and build relationships with others working in the same space?

John McMahon, Senior Manager, Policy and Research:

"There is already a wealth of successful activity across the country, which is valued by patients, healthcare providers and local and national government. We also believe that there are potential positive wellbeing benefits for everyone through most types of arts and cultural engagement, and through being creative more generally, whether that arises from the enjoyment of seeing a performance or exhibition; the calmness and confidence that can stem from learning to create an artwork or play an instrument; or as an antidote to isolation, whether through the social connection to others, or even just getting out of the house. 

"We want to ensure that there is robust research to measure and demonstrate the impact of cultural interventions, as well as ensuring that cultural organisations are able to make informed and supported steps into this arena if it is of interest to them. This is a great example of the need for strong collaboration and partnerships beyond our sector; we will work with champions in the health sector to ensure that arts and health and wellbeing is given the highest profile we can."

The draft strategy says ACE will “give greater support to individual artists and creative practitioners who want to turn their creativity into a career”. Can you give examples of what this support might look like?

Helen Parrott, Senior Manager, Strategic Partnerships, Skills and Workforce:

"We’ve taken the first steps in increasing support for individual artists and creative practitioners through the Developing Your Creative Practice programme. We intend to build on that with the new strategy. We’re still working on the details of this but it might include things like increasing our investment in independent artists, better support for independent artists from publicly funded organisations and better careers information. We also recognise that there is a gap between our investment in children and young people and the progression to becoming a professional artist or creative practitioner and we are thinking about how we might better address that."

The strategy does not mention pay – for artists or other arts sector workers – yet recent research has highlighted that this issue is a widespread concern. How will the new strategy help ACE ensure that artists and other arts sector workers receive fair and adequate pay?

Simon Mellor, Deputy Chief Executive, Arts and Culture:

"We already ask applicants to demonstrate their commitment to fair pay, and we will continue to do so. We paid those not on a salary to participate in our recent consultation workshops and fair pay will remain a priority in our delivery plans. For example, a key component of the recent invitation to organisations to apply for funding for an Arts Council Edinburgh showcase is that artists are paid fairly for their work."

Will the diversity framework outlined in the strategy’s investment principles be used to assess relevance, or will subjective judgement of relevance by ACE also be involved?

Abid Hussain, Director, Diversity:

"We’re still working up the design of the frameworks, using input from the sector. We expect we will use those frameworks to ask organisations applying to be part of the portfolio to tell us how they will improve the inclusivity of their organisation (including workforce, board, audiences, programme etc) and what steps they will take to engage with local communities and other stakeholders and strengthen their relevance."

The strategy says ACE will hold cultural organisations to account if their agreed diversity targets are not met. What is this holding to account likely to involve?

Abid Hussain, Director, Diversity:

"The final decisions on how this will work have not yet been made. It is likely that, using the new inclusivity and relevance framework that we are developing, NPOs will be asked to set themselves inclusivity targets that are appropriate for their organisation and to report on their performance at the end of each funding period. The role of ACE will be to ensure that those targets are stretching enough and to make decisions on future funding based on performance against those targets." 

There is a feeling among some creative artists that a focus on the instrumental benefits of the arts is obscuring the importance of art in its own right. Shouldn’t artists have the freedom to create without being yoked to official agendas?

Simon Mellor, Deputy Chief Executive, Arts and Culture:

"We fundamentally believe that artists should be able to make brilliant work and we do and will continue to support them to do that. Indeed, we would like to invest more money in individual artists. At the same time, we believe the public also has a right to expect a benefit from the way that their money is spent. And in order to make the case to national and local government to invest in the arts and culture, we have to be able to provide an account of both the brilliant work that artists and creative practitioners are creating as a result of that investment, and the wider benefits to society that public funding of culture and creativity generates."

The draft strategy stresses the importance of partnerships, but recent evaluations of ACE-backed initiatives – such as the Great Place Scheme, Local Cultural Education Partnerships and Creative People and Places – have found practical difficulties in encouraging organisations to work together. How will the strategy help ensure cultural sector partnerships are productive and don’t succumb to inertia?

Paul Bristow, Director, Strategic Partnerships:

"We recognise the challenges in working collaboratively. It takes time, energy, stamina and putting cards on the table with people who you may see as competitors, rivals or just from a very different sector to you. It can go wrong, it can be tough, slow and painful. But it can also make things happen that just wouldn’t happen without that collision of experience, perspectives and expertise, and ultimately, it’s often where creativity, innovation and progress comes from. We also know that the best partnerships can create impact at scale and lead to increased benefits to the public compared to organisations working on their own.

"We are learning, just as the participants in those programmes are learning, about what good partnerships look like. We need to help to create the conditions where they’re desirable, achievable and valued. It’s not just about money, though we recognise that can be a catalyst and buy time to invest in the early stages, but ultimately it’s about shared value. 

"We know as well that place-based partnerships only endure and thrive if they have the buy in and active support of partners beyond the public sector within the place. That’s why we work so hard with local government, schools, Local Enterprise Partnerships, further and higher education, Business Improvement Districts, and organisations from across the private and voluntary sectors to ensure that all stakeholders and sectors within places are engaged. We know from programmes like Creative People and Places that the most important partners can come from any sector, and we will look to support new and innovative partnerships over time to build on this."

The draft strategy says that ACE “expects to evolve the types of cultural activities that we will support over the next decade”. How will it decide what counts as culture?

Simon Mellor, Deputy Chief Executive, Arts and Culture:

"At the core of the new strategy is a commitment to continue investing in the artforms and organisations that ACE has traditionally supported – collections, combined arts, dance, libraries, literature, museums, music, theatre and the visual arts. However, we recognise that new technologies and other changes in society have altered the way that many artists, curators, librarians and other practitioners in those art forms and organisations work, and it is transforming the way culture is made and shared. The result is that the traditional boundaries between and around the cultural activities that we support are disappearing. We are excited by these changes and recognise that as a national development agency we have to keep abreast of those changes, and use our expertise and judgement to evolve the types of cultural activities that we will support over the next decade."