Abigail Gilmore is a Co-investigator on the Arts and Humanities Research Council project ‘Understanding Everyday Participation – Articulating Cultural Values’. Along with fellow Co-Investigator, Dr. Lisanne Gibson, University of Leicester, she contributed oral evidence to the Countries of Culture Inquiry. Here she examines where the ‘buck stops’ for national policies tasked with redistributing arts funding, and asks whether arts and cultural policy can become more culturally democratic.
- The recent Countries of Culture report follows an eight month inquiry concerning the unequal distribution of public funding for arts and culture in England’s regions
- There is further disparity in arts and cultural provision between localities outside London, exacerbated by local authority cuts
- Report recommends further rebalancing of arts and cultural funding and established cultural institutions in London being duty-bound to provide ‘outreach’ services to the regions
This post looks at the recommendations of the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee on Countries of Culture Inquiry. In light of recent research on cultural value and everyday participation, a key question to consider is; will arts and culture remain the preserve of a privileged few, or will ending the geographical disparities in funding increase accessibility and participation in the arts?
The Countries of Culture report came out in December 2016. It followed an eight month inquiry concerning the unequal distribution of public funding for arts and culture in England’s regions, and in particular the continuing bias towards London and the worsening state of arts and cultural services given ongoing local government budget cuts. It was initiated in the wake of a Culture White Paper (the first ‘national strategy’ in 50 years) which signalled similar concerns about access and place-making, but with no new money offered aside from existing Treasury commitments (which include the Great Exhibition of the North and Hull City of Culture).
The Inquiry finds that more needs to be done to rebalance arts and cultural funding. It makes recommendations to national policy bodies for actions to incentivise redistribution and income-raising in the regions, including corporate and individual giving through tax breaks. It also recommends that established cultural institutions in London should be duty-bound to provide ‘outreach’ services to the regions, regulated through grant-monitoring requirements.
It follows the 2014 Inquiry into the work of the Arts Council. This took seriously the authors of the Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital report, who submitted evidence on the massive disparities of arts funding to London compared with the regions. Countries of Culture continues this critique, broadening it out to culture and heritage, and finds that although funding is more evenly distribution via the Heritage Lottery Fund and Historic England (both provide around 20% of their funding to London), Arts Council England Grant-in-Aid to London institutions remains at 42%.
There is further massive disparity between localities outside London. Whilst local authorities are still the largest funder, funding for these non-statutory services has been reduced by 20% overall between 2010 and 2015. Currently over a third of local authorities have no arts officer or direct arts service and further cuts are expected by 2020.
The national government response made during the Inquiry by the Minister of Culture, Matt Hancock, places the blame at the feet of those local authorities who haven’t managed dwindling resources efficiently. It proposes the disinvestment in arts and cultural institutions as a matter of local political choice and states that the government (through the Arts Council) should not therefore be duty-bound to intervene by picking up the pieces or giving special treatment to these areas. There is however the means for some re-balancing through additional ring-fencing of Arts Council funding outside of London, distributed through its National Portfolio Organisation competition post-2018.
So will the recommendations of the report help to redistribute arts and cultural funding across the country more fairly?
Changing the culture of philanthropy in the regions will take time in such challenging circumstances. The report endorses approaches where cultural organisations work with local stakeholders, including local government, health, social care and other third sector partners, to develop programmes which tap into partnerships and funds from other sources. However, it also recognises that current funding for this kind of approach through Creative People and Places (CPP) is insufficient.
To counteract this, it proposes that London-based well-funded institutions should deliver outreach services to other less equipped places. However, this is a short-term solution which could bypass the important local knowledge and understanding found crucial in delivering successful CPP programmes.
Furthermore, the Inquiry gathered significant evidence that places which already have strong leadership, existing funding and cultural infrastructure are the ones which achieve further funding and success. This fits with the Darwinian model of national cultural policy suggested by Matt Hancock.
Without policy mechanisms to encourage local capacity building, places which don’t have an existing basis for this form of strategic entrepreneurialism will simply get left further behind. They won’t be able to attract the funding or maintain the venues to host touring exhibitions or outreach programmes as proposed by the report.
And if these recommendations do redistribute funding and access to arts and culture, will we see increased participation and cultural democracy?
Research suggests that simply rebalancing funding whilst retaining the same policy models would not change things dramatically. National policy models focus on institutions as the primary distribution mechanisms for the forms of arts and culture favoured by funders and sponsors, rather than those which are meaningful to people in their everyday lives. These other forms of cultural value are the focus of the AHRC Connected Communities-funded research, Understanding Everyday Participation – Articulating Cultural Values (Miles and Gibson, 2016).
This research has confirms that whilst there is significant evidence of prolific cultural participation in a wide variety of forms, it remains the privileged few who attend arts and cultural institutions (Taylor, 2016). It also reveals that the push and pull factors which operate as barriers and enablers of participation have distinctly locally-defined aspects, and require policies which are configured to local geographies (see Gibson and Delrieu, 2017 and Schaefer, Edwards and Milling, 2017) We need to create policies which seek to understand the social barriers to participation and importance of other assets which compete for local authority budgets but are also under threat of austerity, such as parks and community spaces (Gilmore, 2017).
Disappointingly, the Countries of Culture report calls for research which focuses on the impacts of cultural investment and more evaluation of current arts policy, referring to the critique within the AHRC Cultural Value project of methodologies practiced by the sector. This undermines the value of research already providing a richer understanding of the structural inequalities and historical narratives which underpin the relationships between culture, policy and place. Such research could be instrumental in supporting new policy developments rather than simply reproducing the same arguments concerning the short-falls of existing policy.