Liz Hill examines the findings from ArtsProfessional’s latest Pulse survey gathering the sector’s views on the geographic distribution of arts funding in England. 645 respondents took part in the research from 7–17 February 2014.
The publication of the independent report ‘Rebalancing our Cultural Capital’ (RoCC) in October 2013 kick-started a debate that has rippled through the arts sector to reach the corridors of power, and will be the key focus of the forthcoming Culture Media and Sport Select Committee inquiry into the work of Arts Council England (ACE).
The central premise of the report is that successive governments and ACE have failed to deliver on their own policy rhetoric about redressing a funding balance that favours London over the English regions. The authors put forward a series of audited figures to support their case, the most widely quoted of these being that spending per head on culture was nearly fifteen times greater in London than in the rest of England in 2012/13.
ACE Chair Sir Peter Bazalgette has admitted a funding imbalance favouring London and told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme “more needs to be done… judge us in two years”. But subsequently, ACE has been questioning the figures and claiming that they “give a misleading impression” because National organisations based in London have an impact across the country due to their “role in artistic development, pioneering digital platforms and touring across England”. Response to the RoCC findings from commentators, bloggers and on Twitter suggest that evidence of an imbalance between the capital and the regions comes as no surprise to England’s arts community, although the extent of it has led to many calls for a reassessment of the regional distribution of arts funding.
The only common theme to emerge from the debate so far is that, however the arts funding pot is shared out, it should enable wider access. This is a goal to which ACE aspires, as set out in its own strategic framework Great Arts and Culture for Everyone. But in an era of ‘austerity’, when heavy local authority cuts to arts services are compounding central government cuts, there is no such agreement about what ‘access’ means, what ‘equal’ would look like, or how either could best be achieved. Culture Secretary Maria Miller says the Government is addressing regional access by “trying to make sure that our great national institutions do work regionally”. ACE defends the geographical balance of its funding by citing its strategic touring programme, its Creative People and Places fund for areas of low engagement, and its commitment to digital distribution through projects such as The Space. But Shadow Culture Minister Helen Goodman is calling for ACE to go much further, particularly in the light of local authority cuts which are disproportionately affecting some regions outside London. The authors of the RoCC report similarly reject the notion that touring is the answer; they are calling for stronger and more sustainable resources for cultural production to be based in the regions and paid for by a fairer 'per capita' share of arts Lottery funding. AP’s latest Pulse survey, which has gathered and quantified opinion from across the country on these key issues, reveals the views of the wider arts sector.
Read the full survey responses here, including over 800 comments related to the regional distribution of arts funding in England.
Funding priorities for Arts Council England
Question: “Should any of the following be funding priorities for ACE?”
More cultural production based outside London
This is the only regional funding proposition on which the arts sector is anywhere near consensus. A total of 93% are broadly in favour of this, with 82% of respondents saying this should ‘definitely’ be a funding priority for ACE. Unsurprisingly there is a statistically significant difference between the views of those living in London and those living in the other English regions, but that difference is perhaps not as great as one might expect: more than three-quarters of Londoners tend to support more production outside the capital, and half are ‘definitely’ in favour.
Many emphasise the importance of ‘excellence’, and for some this makes geographic spread irrelevant: “the key is that ACE should be investing in excellent art - irrelevant of geographical area.” One says: “if you starve the capital the regions will collapse. Unfashionable I know but if you feed the quality of work in the capital, [you can] increase the earned revenue from the capital and then share it out regionally. I guess like many artists I fear a decline into mediocrity and a capital city has to set the benchmark.”
But this is a view that many forcefully dispute, believing “there is a lot of talent outside London and it needs to be recognised”. One rejects the notion of the regions receiving “’the crumbs' from London” on the basis that “we are making the art and displaying it ourselves”. Another, from Cornwall, says: “many of our high (and I mean high!) quality performance arts organisations struggle to raise enough funding to put on large scale performances due to the high costs of hiring the small number of large performance venues. Meanwhile we are subjected to less than satisfactory, on occasion desultory, performances from visiting groups.” One respondent sums up a common theme: “we need to invest in talent outside London and promote this. There is a perception that London is best, it's not and we need to shout about this.” Another remarks on the talent drain from the regions: “There is a saturation of artists and makers in London whereas many emerging artists are leaving their regions to head to the capital to seek opportunities. These opportunities are there but there is so much competition. Meanwhile the regions are struggling to keep quality artists making and creating in local areas, therefore widening the gap in quality between work creating in and outside London. Saying this there is some excellent work coming out of the regions but is there enough support for the next generation of artists.”
More cultural production outside London is seen as imperative for encouraging the “development of ecosystems and help[ing] prevent the talent drain to London”. Communities outside London need to benefit from both “high quality arts production, as well as community arts on a grassroots level,” says one respondent, making the case for the role of cultural production in building “social capital at a time of economic struggle in the countryside / outer-city areas”. Another sees potential financial benefits if the regions were to take “a bigger role in developing artforms and new artists of all kinds because they have lower overheads”. But others point to London as having a “concentration of talent” and some express fears that diverting funding from London could be damaging, if it means cutting production in London.
More arts organisations producing work for digital distribution
Whilst more than half of respondents support the prioritisation of more production for digital distribution, only one in five ‘definitely’ see this as a priority and more than a quarter are ‘unsure’. This is also one of only two propositions where respondents living in London do not show any significant difference to those living in the rest of England. A number of concerns are evident in the comments, with some respondents seeing the regions as potentially being “fobbed off” with digital distribution rather than live art. Comments suggest that digital is “over-rated for the performing arts”; that “only a small percentage of arts are suitable for digital distribution”; that increased digital distribution “will be seen by London-based companies as a way of getting them off the hook”; and that whilst it creates wider access for non-London-based arts consumers, it “simultaneously undermines local arts delivery”. The issue of quality is raised: “sometimes the quality and accessibility is questionable... it feels like anything is funded just [because] digital is a priority.” Another points to the digital arts in the gaming industry and questions the “obsession with charity funding going to digital art”. But others are more positive, seeing digital distribution as “part of the solution to a more equitable and pervasive cultural offer” and offering improved access to “work by the national companies [that] can be see not only around the UK, but around the world”. One suggests that larger institutions should exploit the financial potential of digital and live-streaming, but then arts funding should be adjusted accordingly “in favour of new work and building up the live production base in neglected areas of the country”. Another sees digital screenings as potentially being used as a litmus test to assess demand for a touring work prior to booking a tour: “I would love to show screenings of plays produced by the likes of the Tricycle or Soho Theatres in Manchester - breathing life into otherwise finite pieces of work.”
More touring by London- and non-London-based arts organisations
Many consider more touring to be an important funding priority. One respondent observes: “London will continue to be a magnet to arts producers so funding a dynamic touring schedule is important, including getting work to London from around the country.” Almost two-thirds are ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ in favour of more touring by London-based organisations, although one in five are not, while 90% are broadly in favour of touring by regional companies being a priority, and only 3% are against the idea. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a greater tendency – but by no means an overwhelming one – for those living outside the capital to prioritise touring by non-London-based organisations, while almost a quarter are broadly against making touring by London-based companies a priority.
Respondents make the case for touring, but also identify barriers that may need to be addressed before progress can be made. One argues: “more daring and innovative projects will appear in London than elsewhere. These should have the opportunity to go out and expose the rest of the country to the latest art and science.” Another recalls touring an organisation with 'London' in the title to rural areas, and remarks on the “palpable sense of excitement of the anticipation of something really high quality from the capital, rather than local groups”, but recognises that “local groups are vital to the local arts economy and life, and London groups can't tour all the time”.
Many in the regions, however, have concerns. One says: “I despair at the prospect of even more arts investment going to London-based touring companies at the cost of opportunities for regional development.” Another comments: “We are tired of being sold work by London based organisations; they rarely reciprocate.” Common to all appear to be concerns about the need for a “healthy infrastructure of regional venues to receive the work and develop audiences”. “Extra touring doesn't help if the regional theatres are underfunded and can't put on this work,” says one, while another comments: “More touring by everyone [is] needed - and more places outside London they can tour to.” Cuts to small scale touring in the past have exacerbated the regional imbalance, and according to one, this “left a huge gap in the quality of theatre available to people in most small venues around the country. Add to this the loss of repertory theatres it means that unless London based companies tour, people don't have a chance of seeing high quality work.”
The cost of touring, coupled with funding cuts, is seen as limiting touring ambitions – both within the regions and between London and the regions. Some remember that cost was not such a barrier in the past: “Touring by large national organisations is expensive, but it should be attempted as it was in the 1980s,” says one respondent, while another, living in Exeter, recalls having seen Sadler’s Wells and the RSC locally in the past, but “these events no longer take place and not everyone can travel 50+ miles to Plymouth.” Touring by “larger organisations operating from cities and towns in rural locations... to their less connected communities” is also thought to be a priority. “Many rely on public transport to get around which is notoriously slack in more remote areas,” says one, and another points to the value of touring to “local church halls and community centres, bringing culture to the people instead of us all having to travel to major cities and London. Young people especially need to experience this kind of provision for inspiration”.
The funding of national cultural institutions
Question: Should the funding of London-based national arts and cultural organisations be considered separately when determining the distribution of arts funding across England?
Views on the funding of London-based national arts and cultural organisations are divided. Although over half of respondents believe that these institutions should be set apart when considering the geographical distribution of arts funding, more than a third felt the opposite, with Londoners significantly more likely than those in the regions to want them to be considered a special case. But the complexity of the issue emerges from the comments. One observes: “What is the point of national companies with internationally regarded reputations if they are not placed in a separate category? You have to compare like with like.” Others cite “the influence and ability of national institutions to generate income from diverse sources” as another reason for them to be considered separately: “London is important, but London based organisations also have the ability to earn income, raise funding, sponsorship and achieve philanthropic giving in a way that regional organisations do not. There has to be recognition of this...” One respondent suggests: “London institutions should not be cut, but they should not receive any further lottery support until the regions have their fair share of government funding.”
The definition of a national institution is a common theme, one respondent says: “Some arts organisations in London are contributing to London being a cultural world capital [while] others serve their local community or generate work that tours nationally. This all needs to somehow be taken into account while at the same time ensuring a level playing field in the regions.” Another comments: “’London-based’ and ‘National’ do not rest easily in the same sentence. Too much has been spent for too long supporting London-based organisations that the majority of people north of Watford have no access to!” The presence of national organisations outside London was also raised: “There are also national organisations (either in name or reach or significance or uniqueness) located right across England. The danger with this statement is that there's an assumption 'national' only applies to London.”
Funding national institutions from the same budget as London organisations with a more local reach is clearly problematic for some. One says: “Lumping theatres in the London ‘region’ together with national arts organisations with HQs in London is a big problem.” Another comments: “It would be useful to distinguish between those assets which are 'national' and fund these centrally as distinct from those that are local and impact more directly on discrete communities of interest.” But others see this as potentially damaging to the wider picture: “if funding for London was considered separately this could cement divisions and lead to less integration.” One respondent draws parallels with Scotland, where the National Performing Companies have been funded by Government since 2007, they say this has “created a further inequality between them and the rest of the sector and limited Creative Scotland’s ability to see the sector as a whole,” and warn “the determination of what is or is not a national company is so often done on historical lines or on the basis of the 'high' arts versus the rest - [it’s] not a recipe for flexibility or change.”
Per capita Lottery funding distribution
Question: Should the distribution of Lottery funding for the arts reflect regional population densities?
Of all the questions, this has produced the least consensus. Furthermore there is no evidence to suggest that those living in the English regions have significantly different views to those living in London. 30% tend to reject the idea that Lottery funding for the arts should reflect regional population densities, while 53% tend to be in favour, but fewer than a quarter think arts Lottery funding should ‘definitely’ reflect regional population density.
Many raise concerns about how this would impact on rural areas. One says: “It would further aggravate the problem, further isolating already isolated communities.” Another comments that “Population density isn't the only factor. Geographical spread is extremely important, otherwise Cumbria, Cornwall, Northumberland, Devon, Somerset etc will continue to lose out.” The complexity of the issue is revealed through several comments, and many feel that a wider range of factors must be taken into account. One says: “if by regional you mean on a national level then no as it would skew the funding towards London and the South East. If you mean within individual regions e.g. North East, North West, South West etc. then yes it should predominately be targeted at the areas with the highest population density to maximise value for money in terms of community participation and also because the cities and large towns tend to have the most deprived areas.” Several mention problems created by poor transport links: “Population density is important but public transport links and the cost and quality thereof is equally important. Private transport by car is not relevant for equality / access reasons as poorer people and those who can't drive for other reasons do not have access to this.”
One argues that it would be fair to link Lottery funding more closely to ticket purchases, as it “comes from people buying their lottery tickets - it should reflect lottery-ticket buying densities.” ‘Levels of interest’ in the arts are thought by some to be relevant: “There needs to be a measured set of criteria and population density should be only one of those criteria. What if you have a small population which is very engaged with cultural production and a large population who aren't interested at all?” According to others, funding decisions need to recognise the challenges facing “low income areas where the possibility of other funding sources such as sponsorship is nil.”
That arts activity can have an impact far beyond the geographic region where it is created is something that a number feel should also be taken into account, and one points out: “the address of the applicant has often nothing to do with where the activity takes place!” Another says: “The presence in London of companies whose work is primarily played outside of London skews the figures in a way in which most media and those with agendas to follow choose to ignore.” Some comments suggest that the art, rather than the population, should be the starting point for decisions: one says “Funding must also follow talent”, and another observes “There are many other factors and contributors to promoting and developing arts practice, not least where artists determine they are best located to develop their practice.”
Responding to local authority cuts
Question: Should national arts funding be used to compensate areas of the country that have suffered as a result of arts cuts by local authorities?
With 58% of respondents tending towards the view that national arts funding should be used to compensate areas of the country that have suffered as a result of arts cuts by local authorities, and only 29% tending to disagree, it is clear that the sector has concerns about any national arts funding policy that favours working with pro-arts Councils and in effect punishes those that cut their arts budgets. But there are significant differences between London and the regions, with Londoners much less likely to want national funding to compensate for Council cuts than those living elsewhere in England.
A respondent in the North East sums up the problem that many feel needs to be addressed: “The vicious cut to local government, Arts Council, museums and the cultural infrastructure that has happened over the last few years is noticeable in the region and with each year it is becoming harder to maintain an offer of accessible arts to all. If allowed to continue in the years to come the cultural life in the north east will be unrecognisable and will have a devastating impact on the creative wellbeing of residents and the livelihood of freelance artists and small cultural organisations... Share the funding and ensure arts doesn't revert back to being for those who can afford it.” Many reflect the sentiments of one respondent, who says: “things are very desperate in some regional places where Local Authority monies are being cut to nil.” Another says: “If local authorities have totally cut arts grants and officers, and national funding is being cut, what does that leave… It leaves them with no money, that's what.”
But on the other side of the coin, many respondents support the point that “if you did use national funding to compensate for local funding cuts, this could have the unintended effect of encouraging local funding cuts on the basis that this would/could be redressed at no cost to local authorities who decide to target the arts for reduction.” One respondent suggests: “If central government wants to ensure that the arts are funded in the regions, give the regions an arts budget, don't rely on the Arts Council.” But others advocate strong partnerships between ACE and local authorities: “funding needs local authority support; without that link there is nothing to encourage LA's to maintain their cultural provision… We need strategic input at local authority level.” Another remarks: “Even ye olde regional arts funding system only worked well in collaboration with local authorities.” One cites Sefton Metropolitan Borough Council as a local authority which has “continued to put both capital and revenue into the arts at a time when their budget has been slashed by nearly 40%. On that basis, I think they should be supported through the Lottery because they have a track record of support for the arts. I don't think it makes sense to fund major schemes in places where their clearly isn't that support unless it can be shown that there is a significant interest in the arts which is not being met.”
One respondent suggests placing an obligation on local authorities to make arts and leisure provision, noting: “it's in the top five things people look for when moving to an area,” but another feels that a temporary solution is needed: “In principle I agree with ACE's approach of not letting local authorities off the hook by stepping in to fill gaps left by withdrawal of funds. However since it is a fait accompli in many areas already, these difficult times may well call for a more pragmatic approach in the short-term to avoid losing really good organisations who can't survive until the economy picks up.”
All a survey can ever hope to do is to offer evidence to support decision-making, and in this survey only two clear messages emerge: that the arts sector broadly believes cultural production outside London should be a funding priority for ACE; and that the issues that need to be considered in determining the geographic distribution of arts funding are so complex that no solution will ever be considered fair by all. Many respondents comment that there will be “no easy answers that will secure good redistribution”. Even the mapping of current arts provision is a contentious issue: where organisations are located is part of the picture, but some argue that “ACE should not be looking at the distribution of funding based on where arts organisations are based but where they work,” and others suggest that even if an organisation’s work is at a single location, its reach may be national. If it proves impossible to agree on a starting point for the analysis of regional funding distribution, then progress will struggle to be anything but slow and controversial. But that makes it nonetheless important, as one comments: “this topic needs addressing with some vigour, foresight and political will – it goes to the very heart of the future cultural life of the nation as a whole.” And who could disagree with the respondent who says: “This debate needs to be addressed in a mature and responsible manner and arts organisations have a responsibility to join the debate in a constructive and positive way.”
Liz Hill is Editor of ArtsProfessional
This article is not intended to be read as a research report, but rather as a discussion of the issues raised by the findings from the survey. The raw survey data is held by Arts Intelligence Ltd, and can be further interrogated. For details of this service, contact email@example.com.