Leila Jancovich says let’s not pretend ‘we’re all in it together’
I wholeheartedly agree with the ambition of the What Next conference to make the arts a ‘manifesto issue’. Praise too for David Lan’s call to “harness the voices of audiences”, but what about the large numbers of the public who do not make up our audiences?
The tone of What Next, as so often in arts campaigns, seems to be all about advocacy and not about discussion and learning. Alistair Spalding’s call to “actually get the public to understand the value of culture” assumes that the problem is the public’s ignorance rather than the narrow definition of what the arts commonly define as culture. In reality, Arts Council England’s own research, for the arts debate in 2008 and more recently its stakeholder survey in 2012, shows that the public are not against culture, nor even the funding of culture, but there is less support for the culture that is currently being funded. And therein lies the problem.
Whilst it is great to see What Next engaging with commercial, amateur and participatory arts as well as the creative industries, let’s not pretend that the rhetoric of “we’re all in it together” is any more true for the arts than it is for the economy. Some of the creative industries have been doing well with tax breaks under the coalition and if we look at the 30% reduction in funding the Arts Council received in 2010, only 15% was passed onto the regularly funded organisations. The remainder was taken from the Lottery and despite claims that the Lottery pot was getting larger, this fact along with the proliferation of strategic initiatives coming out of the Arts Council, has seen devastating reductions in the success rates from Grants for the Arts for new project and individual artists. Despite the first ever open application process for regularly funded organisations not one national arts institution lost its funding, whilst many smaller regional and touring companies did. Participatory arts organisations are also generally accepted to have suffered the most in the funding cuts, from the Arts Council and Local Authorities, despite being the area most likely to engage the unengaged. So any intelligent discussion has to not just ask the public to value culture, but to ask what culture we should value. Rather than such discourse being seen as divisive to the arts sector, we need to realise that the calls to be united serve the interests of those who already have a voice, far more than those who have not.
Leila Jancovich worked for many years in the arts, as a producer, consultant and policy adviser. She currently works as a Senior Lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University where she specialises in arts and festivals management and cultural policy. She also coordinates a knowledge exchange network on participation and engagement in the arts, bringing together academics, policy makers and practitioners. She is currently undertaking research into public participation in decision making in the arts.