The local problem
He took his cue from the report the New Local Government Network has compiled for ACE which shows that while the local spend on arts and culture has gone down from £1.42bn in 2010 to £1.2bn last year, authorities still spend more than the Arts Council with a mere £700m, thanks to the 33% cuts.
There’s a litany of impressive innovatory schemes that have kept things afloat, and for the future there are service sharing, trusts and mutuals, associations with universities, link-ups with Local Enterprise Partnerships, getting bidders for other services to include something for the arts in their tenders, hotel bed taxes…. Oh, no end of what you could do, and ACE is on hand to give you the connections you need. “We can get the message out that there are ways to make a difference” he finished with. “And we can all advocate for the transformative power of arts and culture, which should be there for everyone”.
But no sooner have we got used to the new spring in our step than along comes David Brownlea, the respected analyst who used to run UK Theatre, works in his spare time for the National Campaign for the Arts and now has his own consultancy, BON Culture. The following morning’s Stage has his analysis: local authorities may spend more than anyone else on culture, but it depends on what you include in your “cultural spend”. If you don’t include things like parks, sport, tourism and libraries and you look only at arts and museum provision the spend is down by between 27% and 35%. In 2014/15 ACE got £449m to hand out, local authorities gave grants of £426m.
It is the peril of statistics which can be made to work for whatever rhetoric you want.
Because the truth is that Baz is right. Whatever message you want to get from the figures, and whatever good intentions you may want to read into Ed Vaizey’s White Paper (“the first of its kind in more than 50 years” Baz told us, adding that it “reaffirmed the importance of local authority funding in the national arts ecology”), there has to be a national initiative and only the Arts Council can do it. The culture secretary seems to have added yet another distraction to those taking his mind off the subject of his title, and if the Chancellor had not taken his own initiative on arts funding in the Autumn Statement and not instituted the expected new cuts ACE might have been so decimated that it would have been in no position to stand behind Baz and his brave words.
ACE will have to work hard in the English regions to make the connections and help local councils keep the faith, but it will be difficult. The government had cut its operation by half – and the objections of Baz’s predecessor led to her contract not being renewed – so that ACE had to cut its regional offices from eight to five. Had there been any more in 2016-20 it would have had to abandon its regional role altogether, as Althea Enfushile, ACE’s admirable (but sadly retiring) deputy CEO, warned last year.
Over the years there have been calls from all political sides for the Arts Council to be abolished and its largesse dished out by DCMS.
If local arts funding is to keep working there needs to be a national network of consultation, advice and brokering that local authorities can trust not to point policy at the polls and that cannot be left in the hands of politicians. We have to pray that ACE is able to provide it, because no-one else can. It will be the most important thing it will ever do.