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Doesn't ACE realise that smaller NPOs are fighting for their very survival? Surely it does. So, says Ian Kerry, that must mean it is choosing to do nothing about it.

Image from Arts Alive and Flicks in the Sticks Animated film

Dear Mr Henley,

I want to make it clear from the outset that I think the Let’s Create strategy is a good and important document. For small rural touring schemes such as the one I lead, it pretty much defines the work we have been doing for the past 20 years.

While I find the recent involvement of DCMS in the workings of ACE a rather worrying new step – ACE is supposed to be an arm’s length cultural organisation free from political interference after all - I do have to say that their insistence that ACE share the investments they make more fairly, taking money away from London and spreading it around the country, is something that ACE should have done on its own accord many years ago. 

Not only have organisations such as ours been shouting about this for years, ACE’s own reports into funding of rural areas clearly show a London bias, and that funds are not allocated fairly. Moreover, larger London based organisations have greater access to sponsorship and trust funding in eye watering amounts. Whereas here in a rural area, there are few such opportunities.

Given this plan for a redistribution of investment, I still have grave concerns about ACE’s list of places where this extra investment will be spent, with no reference to existing NPOs who are struggling for survival. None of those priority areas, where “our investment and engagement is too low”, are in Shropshire and Herefordshire. Not even Telford and Wrekin.

Unfathomable decision

Below is a snapshot of the current status of my organisation, which illustrates why we find this decision about priority places unfathomable.

Over the past 10 years as an NPO, our ACE grant has increased by just 2.4%. During the same period, according to the Bank of England, inflation has risen by 27% and that’s before the current high level of inflation is taken into consideration. And we have suffered an additional loss of nearly £30,000 in austerity cuts from local authorities.

Come April, National Insurance will increase by 1.5%, and two staff members will require a 3.5% wage increase just to ensure they reach the minimum wage, more to achieve the National Living Wage. I know they are worth more than this minimum remuneration, and ACE says it wants us “to invest in [our] workforces”. But just how are we supposed to achieve this?

As we work towards full recovery from the pandemic, our audiences are still cautious. Many of them are from an older age demographic and from more vulnerable groups. This means, for the coming year at least, a further reduction in our income.

Decline in rural cultural life

While we have increased income from other sources during this time, the situation is not sustainable. The only way we have managed to keep our heads above water over the last decade is by paying low wages – ironically reducing the number of events we have been able to produce. 

It has been announced that for 2022-2023 our grant will remain at the same level, and we cannot expect any increase in the next NPO round, particularly as we don’t fall into the target priority areas.

This diminishing investment is leading to a decline in culture in our rural areas. So much so that I have grave doubts, without a major change in funding policy, whether we will still exist in five years’ time.

I have worked in the arts for some 30 years and I have never experienced such low morale. The process we are about to embark on in this new NPO round - the outcomes, elements, pillars and principles, the financial templates and guidelines, 500 pages of reading -  is overly complex. It feels dictatorial – and creates a huge amount of additional work at a time when we are already on our knees.

Opportunities as a truck driver?

For those fortunate NPOs in receipt of £millions a year, who have whole departments able to devote themselves to filling in the same application form as the tiniest organisations, the process is much easier. They will stand a greater chance of success. 

But for us, with the equivalent of 1.7 full-time employees, whose time is dedicated to actually doing the work, the process is hugely time consuming with little prospect of success, which is weighted instead towards the well-funded organisations. So with morale low, and pay levels even lower, is it any wonder that we were unable to fill a recent vacancy for an artistic programmer?

We have so many ambitions for our communities and audiences, ambitions to reach more people, with great cultural events, in rural areas where there is little or no access to culture. But ACE’s current policies mean we are not able to realise them. 

Is this really the legacy that ACE wants? Is this really the best that ACE can do for the cultural sector in the countryside? I think not. But will it change? Again, I think not.

Time for me to pass on my Grantium login details, and what a huge weight off my shoulders that will be. I hear there are good opportunities as a truck driver?

Ian Kerry is Executive Director of Arts Alive.


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Thank you Ian Kerry for telling it how it is. As director of Carn to Cove 2006- present (Cornwall’s rural touring scheme) and caretaker director of Villages in Action south Devon’s scheme from 2018-2021 i completely support your view about ACE needing to see what is staring them in the face about how to redress years of imbalance in supporting rural arts and artists through under invested rural touring schemes nationally . According to ACE priority areas there are no areas of in the Villages in Action region ( the whole of south Devon) and only the Isles of Scilly in Cornwall - as one who is very active both on the islands and on the mainland and knowing where true gaps are this is a travesty

Thanks Ian, I appreciate your heartfelt piece. Let us not forget that 17.6% of the population live in rural areas while only 2.6% ACE NPO investment goes to rural based NPO's. The arts and rural areas infrastructure needs serious investment if it is not to wither on the vine. Rural based organisations are inhibited particularly in the areas of staff recruitment and retention. How can we attract good staff if the wider infrastructure is weak, thereby limiting career progression for those considering a move to a rural based organisation? Over the last 2 NPO rounds (over an 8 year period) the number of rural based NPOs flatlined at 37 out of a total portfolio of over 650 clients. The shift in funds out of London last time around did nothing to strengthen the rural infrastructure, with funds going into urban and metropolitan areas in the regions. Otherwise the number of rural NPOs would have increased. These issues are structural and systemic and without serious consideration will condemn arts activity in rural areas to scrape along the bottom. Generational changes in approach are required and while I accept that ACE are dealing with multiple issues on several fronts, this issue has been around for a long time. The positive thing is that a modest intervention and increase in resources going into rural areas would have a much more significant impact relative to that increase. In our case a little would go further than a long way. Such a move would also play into the environmental sustainability, localism agendas and stronger communities that currently are driving ACE and wider government aspirations. A change in approach would, therefore, a win win on several fronts.