Funding of the arts and heritage

Written evidence submitted by Amber Film & Photography Collective (arts 111)


Impact of Cuts: useful debate, threat to distinctiveness and diversity;

Economies of Scale: strong possibilities in funding structure, maybe some possibilities in larger organisations, danger of homogenisation;

Necessary Level of Public Subsidy: the arts are sustainable – they will survive; depends what you want;

Is Current System the Right One: no system ideal; there are huge anomalies in film funding which need to be structurally addressed;

Impact of Lottery Changes / Policy Guidelines Review: more money always useful, more flexibility would be even more useful;

Arm’s Length Principle / Abolition of Film Council & MLA: arm got shorter, should get longer again; depends on what happens next, but push film funding reorganisation into the regions;

Businesses and philanthropists: lovely people but don’t rely on them to provide stability;

More Government Incentives to Giving: probably more useful than the incentives to ripping us all off.

1. What impact recent, and future, spending cuts from central and local Government will have on the arts and heritage at a national and local level

The broader debate they have generated is probably quite healthy – it is good to have to make the case for the work that you do, to challenge assumptions and to question some of the directions in arts, media and heritage funding over the last ten years. The restructured Arts Council and our local authority (Newcastle upon Tyne) have approached a difficult situation with considerable responsibility and an openness that seems admirable. Obviously things will get more problematic as they are forced into more serious percentage cuts and, inevitably, cutting organisations, but the approach from both, so far, has been rooted in an understanding of and respect for the value of difference. Nobody has a right to subsidy. It would stupid to argue that everything that is currently funded is wonderful. As and when deeper cuts are implemented, bad decisions will be made alongside justifiable ones.

The difficulty we face is that the last ten years or so saw a deliberate aligning of cultural funding with government strategies. Some of this might have seemed like nothing more than soft PR and the kind of target management everybody else had to put up with, but it was a corrupting influence from which ACE only began the process of detaching itself with the Brian McMaster report in 2008. We are only beginning to recover from the expensive institutionalised dishonesty that came with target management and PR. It had an homogenising effect. At this precise cultural moment, the healthiest approach would be something like the old, ‘Let a thousand flowers bloom!’ Clearly that is not going to be the watchword, but the spirit that informs that approach should be maintained nevertheless.

2. What arts organisations can do to work more closely together in order to reduce duplication of effort and to make economies of scale

This may have some practical value with the larger arts organizations, where some services, such as HR, might be shared between organisations in geographical proximity. Central ordering might be possible. One should be careful however. The ‘thousand flowers’ (less 10 – 40%) principle loses its value if everything ends up being chrysanthemums. Particularly in the smaller organisations, but even in the larger ones, the nature of the organisation is inextricably bound up with its identity and distinctiveness. We’ve just gone through a period where there was a damaging pressure towards philosophical homogeneity. It’s always worth asking the questions, but at whatever reduced overall scale, it is the distinctiveness of the different organizations that is of greatest importance.

There would be sense in bringing back together the regional structures of the arts and film, however. The separation of 2002 has generated much higher establishment costs on the film side and far greater inflexibilities in the kind of work that can be supported. In the current cultural context, with so many technological, distributive and artistic convergences, it would be more productive to have a continuum of funding opportunities. There is an argument for keeping national ‘film industry’ funding separate – there are some different priorities – but this should be examined closely.

3. What level of public subsidy for the arts and heritage is necessary and sustainable?

This is an impossible question to answer. By and large, the relationship between public subsidy and other income is quite healthy across the arts. If we want the kind of arts we have in this country, reducing levels of public subsidy will have the effect of reducing other income levels as well. I don’t buy the idea that private investment can be drawn in to replace public subsidy. There are much higher levels of private arts funding in the USA, but, there, a vast swathe of what we are able to do in this country would simply not be possible. And, if you want to pursue an economic line, much of the distinctiveness from which we are able generate significant cultural earnings as a country is rooted in the very particular and often small scale things that we are able to do here.

Looking at things another way, communications and information are key areas in which it looks like there will be economic growth internationally over the coming years. It may sound trite to say that the arts and heritage are about communications and information, but, even though one may not always know where the investment is leading, it is important to encourage the rich interplay of activity across these territories, because history tells us that it is hugely productive.

The arts would survive even if there were no funding – they grow from quite deep and complex needs (most, but not all of them admirable…). They have, however, been increasingly of importance in the UK’s ability to punch above its weight as a post-industrial, post-colonial, declining power. Internationally, it is the individualism, independence and originality that plays best. This is what will be lost as artists and producers are pushed towards other people’s agendas.

4. Whether the current system, and structure, of funding distribution is the right one

There is no ‘right’ system of funding distribution. I lament the loss of the regional arts associations/boards – there has been a damaging strengthening of metropolitanism over recent years (in broadcasting, in the press, in arts and film funding). It is not good for our culture. At the same time, I would recognise that the recent reorganisation of the Arts Council has, in fact, been taken forward with far greater openness of thinking than was often the case before. The arms length principle was seriously eroded under the last government and it would be healthy to rebuild the sense of independence. It is also true that the recent ACE reorganisation has seriously reduced establishment costs – which is good.

I don’t know enough about museums funding to talk of that territory, but, as argued above, film funding establishment costs have seemed disproportionate to the level of funds coming out. We have had more to do with our regional screen agency than with the Film Council. Although I was initially against the ACE reorganisation proposals, the goodwill with which they are being developed in the North encourages me. In our work we operate across the arts (a documentary photography gallery and archive), film (film production, a film archive and a cinema) and media (website, webtv), so we could be seen as biased – our interests would be served by something much more connected. We have been concerned over the last few years about the territories of film and video work that can’t be funded since Alan Parker’s Film Council ‘vision thing’ back in 2002, telling us (quite accurately) that there would only be crumbs for cultural and regional film. It was a mistaken policy from which the Film Council has pulled back. The ludicrous thing is, however, that, if I was a visual artist wanting to make ‘artist film and video’, I could make a good case for getting between £10K and £30K without the process seeming impossible. If I want to make a documentary or a drama (culturally equivalent to work I might do – and fund - in photography or theatre and with similar or greater audience reach), I find it hard to get £5K. Unless I am able to fit in with a compromising scheme or a ‘economic development’/’film industry’ agenda. This is culturally damaging at this ‘Gutenberg’ moment, when moving image has become accessible as a vernacular. Going back to the argument in 3 (above), we as a nation lose out from this cultural flexibility.

Given that the Film Council has been axed, I think it is important that the whole film funding structure is revisited. Priority should be given to:

a) Flexibility of funding;

b) A continuum of funding opportunity that does not arbitrarily exclude different ways of working and different kinds of work;

c) Efficiency of establishment;

d) Parity of esteem between metropolitan and regional concerns and practices.

5. What impact recent changes to the distribution of National Lottery funds will have on arts and heritage organisations / Whether the policy guidelines for National Lottery funding need to be reviewed

If you’re referring to the return to original percentage levels, clearly these will be positive. Under the last government there was, as with cultural funding in general, a pressure to address government agendas and PR concerns. The country would probably benefit more from widening the possibilities of what can be funded. It’s hard for governments to see this at times, but the pressure to accommodate their visions can reduce meaningful productivity (even when the principle is good). The less rigid the schemes, the harder you have to work in assessing and justifying proposals, but the healthier the outcome. There are benefits from letting go.

6. The impact of recent changes to DCMS arm’s-length bodies - in particular the abolition of the UK Film Council and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council

I have already argued, above, that the arm has got shorter over the past ten years and it could do with extending itself back again. It’s impossible to say what the impact will be of abolishing the Film Council and MLA – it depends on what happens next. I don’t know about the MLA, but given that the Film Council has been abolished, it is important to carry on and sort out the cultural anomalies that were generated in the separation of film funding from the Arts Council and the establishment of the Regional Screen Agencies (see 4, above).

7. Whether businesses and philanthropists can play a long-term role in funding arts at a national and local level

Businesses, philanthropists, the very rich, the very poor and all the world between have played vital long and short term roles in funding arts at national and local levels for as long as art has been valued. This situation is unlikely to change.

It very much depends on what you want (see 3, above). By and large, businesses and philanthropists do not want to commit themselves to providing long-term security to particular organisations. Our organisation has received revenue funding from the historical Arts Council/Regional Arts structure for 33 years. The level has fluctuated wildly at times (and not always in a good way), but even in the most difficult period there has something that has enabled us to continue work, the 40 year narrative of which is unique and of cumulative cultural significance. We would not have been able to build such a distinctive body of work if that kind of funding had not been there.

If you have stable, long-term public funding, you can work creatively with the shorter term interests of businesses, foundations, philanthropists and whoever. There are perhaps more opportunities to secure some kinds of interest where you have a national/international profile, but its not impossible in the regions or in some of the more difficult areas. The cumulative contribution of this funding to the sector can be considered long-term, but in the vast majority of cases the particular experience of it will be short-term.

8. Whether there need to be more Government incentives to encourage private donations

The easier government makes it, the more private donations will play a part.

September 2010