Arts Coun­cil money must work for the whole na­tion

Country Life Every Week - - Athena -

‘Our re­gional Arts or­gan­i­sa­tions have been badly hit by the past decade of cuts

THIS week, Athena cel­e­brates the first birth­day of her col­umn. How fe­lic­i­tous then to re­ceive what feels like a present in the form of the new Na­tional Port­fo­lio an­nounced by the Arts Coun­cil. This is a group of 831 cul­tural or­gan­i­sa­tions—from dance com­pa­nies to mu­se­ums and or­ches­tras to theatre trusts—that will re­ceive a to­tal of £1.6 bil­lion of gov­ern­ment and Na­tional Lottery fund­ing be­tween 2018 and 2022. This rep­re­sents an in­crease on the £1.1 bil­lion sim­i­larly in­vested be­tween 2015 and 2018.

In ad­di­tion, 183 new in­sti­tu­tions have joined the Na­tional Port­fo­lio and the bal­ance of ex­pen­di­ture be­tween Lon­don and the re­gions is set to change, the lat­ter re­ceiv­ing just over 60% of the in­vest­ment.

There is a cer­tain irony that Sir Nicholas Serota, who so bril­liantly fo­cused gov­ern- ment re­sources over many years on Tate Mod­ern, should pre­side over this an­nounce­ment as Chair of the Arts Coun­cil. There is no gain­say­ing, how­ever, that it is wel­come.

The re­al­ity is that our re­gional Arts or­gan­i­sa­tions across the board have been very badly hit by the past decade of cuts. Be­sides such su­per­fi­cial and doubt­ful economies as short­ened mu­seum open­ing hours (Athena re­cently dropped into Southamp­ton City Art Gallery, for ex­am­ple, and won­dered how many peo­ple could re­al­is­ti­cally visit be­tween 10am and 3pm), there has also been a real loss of ex­per­tise. For ex­am­ple, the num­ber of cu­ra­tors in re­gional mu­se­ums has been in grad­ual and steady de­cline, yet, with­out them, the con­ser­va­tion and dy­namic pre­sen­ta­tion of a col­lec­tion is im­pos­si­ble.

For this very rea­son, the in­vest­ment many re­gional Arts or­gan­i­sa­tions need is in posts and unglam­orous in­fras­truc­ture. There are wor­ries, there­fore, that ac­com­pany this oth­er­wise en­tirely pos­i­tive an­nounce­ment, in par­tic­u­lar that the siren call of new Arts ini­tia­tives will take pri­or­ity over the es­sen­tial in­vest­ment that is now needed in ex­ist­ing in­sti­tu­tions. In this re­gard, it’s en­cour­ag­ing that Southamp­ton City Coun­cil ap­pears in the Na­tional Port­fo­lio and wor­ry­ing that the char­ity English Her­itage does not.

Ad­di­tion­ally, it’s im­por­tant that money isn’t squan­dered on tem­po­rary posts that will come and go within the bud­getary pe­riod and be at­tached to what are, in ef­fect, short­term projects.

No less sig­nif­i­cant is the dan­ger that Lon­don or­gan­i­sa­tions may now be pun­ished fi­nan­cially as the sys­tem con­sciously seeks to ad­van­tage the re­gions. The cap­i­tal plays a dis­tinct role in our cul­tural life and its out­stand­ing in­sti­tu­tions should be treated as jew­els in our na­tional crown.

More­over, dur­ing the past decade—and in fair­ness to Sir Nicholas in his for­mer di­rec­to­rial role at Tate—the great­est have made enor­mous ef­forts to en­gage with re­gional or­gan­i­sa­tions and have also helped them through the rav­ages of the cuts. They mustn’t be pe­nalised. In­stead, this money should be spent wisely for the re­spec­tive needs of the cap­i­tal and the re­gions and, con­se­quently, to the ben­e­fit of us all.

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