Arts Council money must work for the whole nation
‘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.