On 15 December Nadine Dorries wrote to all Arts Council England’s NPOs about measures to increase access to the arts. It was distributed by ACE. An anonymous NPO replies.
(I hope you don’t mind my not addressing you formally as Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.)
Thank you for your Christmas letter, which you sent to all National Portfolio Organisations, including me. It came in a slightly crumpled wrapping from Darren Henley, Chief Executive of Arts Council England. I thought ACE was a non-governmental organisation, but it seems that the arm’s length principle is just about long enough for Darren to post your message through my letter box.
Thank you, Nadine (and Darren), for your kind words about how hard we have been working in the face of the “unprecedented challenges for culture” during the pandemic. Thank you too Nadine for the Cultural Recovery Fund, which has kept us all going.
As NPOs, we are of course in a privileged position. We have institutions and buildings to maintain, and the Fund has been a great help. It hasn’t been so hot, though, for many smaller organisations and, although we’ve done what we can for the freelancers that we depend on for just about everything, it’s been really tough for the self-employed. But it is nice to know you care.
In your letter, Nadine, you refer to “life-changing cultural experiences” such as those you experienced as a child at the Liverpool Everyman and your wish for more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to have them. I couldn’t agree more. In fact I can’t think of any of my fellow NPOs who don’t wish to spread the benefits of what they do as far and as wide as they possibly can. That, surely, is what government subsidy is for.
It may sound a bit lefty to say this – and I hope you don’t mind – but the funding that you control tries to compensate for the failure of the free market, which makes life-changing cultural experiences so expensive for so many young people. It is the same principle in public health and education. The trouble is I’m not sure you see it that way. We agree, of course, that we should do everything we can to increase access to the arts and that there should be “routes into the cultural sector for people of every background”.
We agree, too, that the leadership teams and boards of cultural organisations should be more diverse. Rightly, you go beyond the requirements of the Equality Act to argue also for “diversity of class and socio-economic background”. To that end, you ask us to provide data on the socio-economic background of our audience, our workforce and our board. To make sure we do, this will be mandatory from April 2023.
The sting, though, is in your penultimate paragraph which suggests a rather different view of what public subsidy is for: “I have also asked Arts Council to consider the track record of organisations in access closely when considering applications for funding”. In other words, if I don’t do as you say, my grant will be cut. You see, I am not sure you understand how NPOs like me work. We’re doing everything we can to make what we do accessible to as many people as possible, and to open our leadership and boards as widely as possible.
But we are working in conditions where your own government’s educational policies are making the arts less, not more, accessible to young people. Our workforce needs to be trained, our leadership needs the skills and experience to deliver the best for our art form, and our boards need the time – and let’s face it, the security – to be able to give their services for free. But you seem determined to use the financial levers at your disposal not to support what we do, but to punish us for the structural problems that all governments, but Conservative governments particularly, have failed to address.
I am sure you mean well, but I have one last question. Surely a libertarian, such as I understand you to be, is an enemy of red tape? Yet you are imposing a whole new set of reporting requirements on organisations like me that are already hard pressed trying to tick all the boxes that your servant, the Arts Council, keeps sending our way. I only ask, but when I read a letter like yours, with its demands and threats, I begin to think that there is a new meaning to that Brexiterian catchphrase, “Take Back Control”.
With best wishes for a Happy New Year.
An anonymous NPO