Four experts share their vision for the future of Arts Council England, one that lives up to its mantra of great art for everyone
On 17 March the bids went in. As a croupier would say: the chips are down, no more bets. Arts leaders all over the country finally got some sleep and turned their attention back to running their organisations, while over at Arts Council England (ACE) staff were preparing for weeks of reading, sifting and judging dozens of national portfolio organisation (NPO) funding applications.
ACE has a difficult job. While its own budget and staff have been cut, rumour has it within the sector that most organisations have asked for increases of around 10%. Greedy or what? Unrealistic certainly. On top of that, ACE is under pressure from the regions, who have cried foul, and from London, where much of the growth is.
The body faces some tough questions, the answers to which will send out powerful signals. Should it reward those local authorities that have continued to support the arts, or does it try to shore things up in places where local authorities have made cuts? Should it give to those magnificent cultural palaces brought into being through the lottery, or is it time for some of them to stand on their own feet? And how can ACE support new and invigorating companies without endangering regular clients?
That's no doubt what's going through ACE's mind, but here's what we think ACE should be doing.
First, it should think hard about whether the current method of dividing up the pie should be scrapped altogether. The system is over-centralised, stuck too far in the past and, worst of all, encourages competition (albeit one where the winners and losers are almost all known in advance) instead of collaboration. We need a system that encourages consortia bids, with all the arts organisations in a town or borough working together, pooling their resources and energies. The result would be cost savings, plus a better service for the public.
Second, it should live up to its strapline: great art for everyone. ACE is, after all, the Arts Council, so it should be championing and supporting what it judges to be great art. If it's going to do that it needs more confidence in its own artistic decisions and better ways of explaining its judgements. It needs to get beyond the clichés of transformation and excitement, and tell people in clear language why it thinks a particular gallery or theatre is doing something special.
It should also help those arts organisations that really do reach "everyone". ACE must be far more rigorous with its clients when it comes to the demand side of the equation. Audience satisfaction surveys are not good enough; that just tells us about the status quo. What's needed is some real soul searching about why, after all these years and all that money, the vast majority of people in England remain indifferent to the arts. ACE should be supporting those companies, and only those companies, that work with and are respected by their communities, not just their audiences.
The end result is a lot of muddle in the middle: on the one hand trying to make people like stuff they don't like; on the other, funding mediocre work to keep the show on the road. It all amounts to something of an existential crisis for ACE. And if it doesn't, it should.
Should ACE continue to be (essentially) a funding organisation, doling out the money in a cherished and unquestioned ceremony? Or do we need something more akin to a development agency for arts organisations, helping them to adapt to the new harsh climate of a post-social democratic, cash-only, cuts-ridden, market-oriented society, helping them acquire the skills, attitudes and investment they need to survive in a world of brand management, sweated IP assets and heavy marketing?
Or should it be a development agency not for arts organisations but for arts audiences, weaning the masses from Britain's Got Talent to Britain's Got Britten or Britain's Got Brit Art?
Perhaps it should it be more dispassionate: a marketing agency for the arts, looking to identify a more balanced product range that meets the tastes and aspirations of the varied demographics, the tribes and audience segments that make up the tax-paying, lottery-playing providers of its budget?
Or, instead of being chased by the What Next? campaign, should it be doing the chasing – aiming to be less of a process-driven, KPI-chasing institution to become more of a movement, with activist cells to spread the love and allocate funds? But a world run by activist cells is unlikely to be any more accountable or equitable than a world run by a professional bureaucracy.
Perhaps it could be a change agent of a very different sort, working with local authorities, Whitehall departments, community organisations and commercial investors to re-shape the public realm, echoing the famous citizenship pledge of the ancient Athenians to "leave our city more beautiful and more prosperous than we found it"? That would be a good ambition for a country whose leading politicians are never shy of asserting that it is the most creative nation on Earth.
Three Johns & Shelagh are John Holden, John Kieffer, John Newbigin and Shelagh Wright.