TAITMAIL Seeing straight in ACE’s 2020 vision

Next week Arts Council England is expected to announce its cultural strategy for the next ten years, and already it’s being forestalled by another report, called ACE in a hole.

We don’t know what's going to be in ACE’s official document but we can take an educated guess, with the consultation document ACE has based it on getting 87% approval from the 6,000 institutions and individuals it has talked to over the last 19 months.
 
Shaping the Next Ten Years was based on three “outcomes”: encouragement of individual creativity; culture shaping where we live, work and learn; and what the professional culture sector should look like. And there were three “investment principles”, where the bulk of its £622m a year government subvention should go: rewarding and encouraging ambition; increasing inclusivity and relevance (programming, workforce, leadership, governance, audiences, and consultees asked for partnerships, or sharing of assets, to be added); and dynamism plus environmental sustainability. There is flesh on those bones at https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/nexttenyears.

The pre-emptive response comes from a group of academics and cultural think-tankers - Shelagh Wright, John Newbigin, John Kieffer, John Holden and Robert Hewison, the Hole Five, some of whom are serial critics of the Arts Council but all, as academics like to say, good brains. Their issue is, in a nutshell, blandness and woolliness: ACE’s vision is for England to “become a country where the creativity of each of us is valued and can flourish, and where every one of us has access to a rich and remarkable range of high-quality cultural experiences” where there is “a sense of collective ambition to embrace the opportunities and tackle the challenges” and an “appetite for boldness and… a widespread understanding that for creativity and culture to flourish in this country it must touch everyone".

Nothing there anybody could reasonably object to, except for the absence of clarity and urgency, say the Hole Five. 
 
ACE should be publicly castigating the DfE for “deliberately erecting barriers to arts and cultural education, and so is denying access to the arts”, but actually it does. ACE’s chair Nick Serota chaired the recent Durham Commission on Creativity and Education which headlined on the need for creative teaching in England’s schools – “We must unlock every child’s creative potential” Serota declared. ACE should be demanding better business practice among its clients, but it does – it dumped one of its flagships, ENO, for three years until it came up with an acceptable business plan. It should be distributing its largesse more equitably around the country, which it has been almost frantically trying to do after it was called out for concentrating too much on London by another set of wiseacres in Rebalancing our Cultural Capital in 2014. It needs to simplify reporting and monitoring as well as application processes, which ACE says it is pledged to do. And it needs to be more like a development agency, an advocate rather than a funding policeman, which it is already committed to doing through its regional offices.
 
But the point really is that while subsidy is supposed to allow risk among its clients, the Hole Five think ACE is much too risk averse, quoting Braque: “The purpose of art is to disturb”. Is ACE prepared to disturb, and be disturbed?
 
It needs to go back and examine basic practice (which ACE’s Simon Mellor, architect of the strategy, might say is precisely what it has done): if the process comes from the people rather than the funding source, ACE has to find out how to start from the people; it has to work out how to reward co-operation between arts organisations; it must find out how to nurture new talent; it must explore different ways of cash distribution with decisions being devolved locally; and it has to grab the DfE by the throat over creative education from year 0. “A creative nation is not a nation of professional artists, but a nation of people who make culture for themselves” the Hole Five intone.
 
And actually, ACE in a hole sees itself as complimentary to the ACE vision: it has given itself, after all, ten years to get it in 2020 focus. But the Hole Five are really talking to government, not the Arts Council. 
 
It’s not just the Arts Council that needs a rethink, the whole arts funding system has to be taken back to basics, never forgetting that the arts feed the creative industries which earn the UK £100bn a year. We need a network of partnerships that draws in local authorities and agencies of all dimensions and is not dominated by government or government appointments. That is where the Hole Five are right.
 
“Culture is not a commodity, a privilege or a qualification” they conclude. “Together with the need for public order, public health and democratic governance, it is an essential part of the public realm – that shared space which allows commercial interests, governments, charities, pressure groups, and private individuals to interact. The arts and culture offer languages in which ideas, images and values that are disputed in the public realm can be resolved – or at least chewed over. 
 
“When so much of the public life of the country feels in a state of flux, ACE is right to set itself the goal of ‘shaping the next ten years’.”

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