Funding of the arts and heritage

Written evidence submitted by Axis (arts 141)

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

1.1 Artists survive within a mixed economy of practical opportunities and support which depend on state and local government investment. Artists’ studio groups often rely to some degree on public subsidy; many artists work in schools, Further Education and Higher Education, where retrenchment looms; the regeneration schemes which created opportunities for public art are likely to disappear; and it goes without saying that there will be fewer commissions and exhibitions, as funding for our gallery system diminishes. 

1.2 There has been little discussion so far about the impact of cuts to arts funding on many aspects of the private sector, as budgets for office accommodation, marketing and various other specialist services diminish. In the long run, commercial galleries will also lose out, because innovative emergent practice so often finds early support and encouragement within the subsidised sector. And, of course, the impact of public sector cuts on the wider economy will mean that there is simply less money to spend on art.

1.3 Cuts are already being felt at a local level, because there is less funding available through local authorities and Grants for the Arts, and other funders (e.g. trusts and foundations) have become more cautious in response to dwindling investment income. Several visual arts organisations in our region (Yorkshire) have made staff redundant and curtailed their activities; and there are further redundancies and programming cuts in prospect.

1.4 In general the impact of the cuts so far has been a scaling-down of artistic ambition and the loss of amenities and services that make a practical difference to the individual practitioner. Sheffield Contemporary Art Forum, for example, had a budget of only £42K for its recent city-wide festival of contemporary art (Art Sheffield 2010) – in sharp contrast to the budget of £98K which it raised for the same event two years ago. Also in Sheffield, Yorkshire ArtSpace Society (an artists’ studio complex) has been forced to close the reception area which has served as a small exhibition area for artists, both from Sheffield and from further afield.

1.5 Like all Arts Council Regularly Funded Organisations, our own organisation (Axis – the online resource for contemporary art) has absorbed a 0.5% cut this financial year and expects a 10% cut to its funding from ACE next year, with more substantial cuts in the pipeline thereafter. These difficulties have been compounded by the withdrawal of £20,000 of core funding from the Arts Council of Wales, as a consequence of its recent investment review.

1.6 We are very concerned that organisations based in England, but with a UK-wide membership and remit, are finding it increasingly difficult to attract funding from Wales and Scotland, where there is clearly a strong sense that local organisations should take priority. This retreat behind internal national boundaries makes for a more fragmented and inward-looking cultural sector, less able to represent and speak on behalf of the UK as a whole.

1.7 One of the more disappointing aspects of the Arts Council of Wales’s investment review was the distinction it appeared to draw between "frontline services" (i.e. organisations directly involved with producing and presenting art) and behind-the-scenes activities. To pit one against the other, in an echo of government rhetoric about frontline delivery and backroom bureaucracy, is to make a simplistic distinction that ignores the complexity of the ‘ecology’ upon which arts organisations and individual artists depend. If ‘the frontline’ is interpreted as meaning public-facing institutions, then many of the agencies and networks that offer strategic support to the individual artist and independent producer within the visual arts sector will disappear.

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

2.1 Many organisations are already looking at how they can share resources, for example by combining ‘backroom’ functions, sharing exhibitions and collections and jointly funding and promoting events. But while it often makes good sense for organisations to work together in the interests of maximising the return on public subsidy, there will always be limits to what collaboration and sharing of resources can achieve. Arts organisations, like any other kind of organisation, have their own internal culture and governance arrangements, which can make it genuinely difficult to merge or share resources.

2.2 In addition, most small to medium-sized arts organisations are already administratively lean, with little spare capacity to ‘lend out’ to others. There are also dangers inherent in organisations becoming too engrossed in implementing structural change and merger arrangements at the very time when they need to be at their most inventive and outward-facing.

2.3 For all these reasons, we would urge the Select Committee to accept the argument currently being made by Arts Council England that cuts should not be frontloaded, but should be staged in a way that encourages considered decision-making and gives organisations time to adjust their business models. If cuts are implemented too quickly, then many worth-while organisations with the potential to adapt and evolve will fall by the wayside.

3. What level of public subsidy for the arts and heritage is necessary and sustainable? Is the current system, and structure, of funding and distribution the right one? What is 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?

3.1 It is hard to know how to respond to these questions, given that the government has already pre-empted consultation by abolishing the UK Film Council and MLA, and by proposing that English Heritage should merge with The Heritage Lottery Fund. It is surprising that these decisions have been taken with (apparently) so little detailed consideration of how they will be implemented.

3.2 At a time when so many other areas of the economy are contracting and vitally important public services are under threat, it may be unrealistic to argue that funding for the arts should be maintained at existing levels. Yet the UK has the largest cultural economy in the world relative to its GDP and the arts and heritage industries are central to the all-important tourist trade. We urge the Select Committee to keep these economic arguments in mind as it deliberates the future of art and heritage funding.

3.3 We also urge the Select Committee to acknowledge the progress that Arts Council England has recently made in reducing its overheads and streamlining its administrative systems. We believe that Arts Council England has risen to the challenges presented by the current economic climate and is working hard to support its client organisations through difficult times. Any further cuts to Arts Council England would, in our view, inflict irretrievable damage on an organisation that is valued and needed by the arts community more than at any other time in the post-war period.

3.4 Necessary though its recent re-structuring may have been, it leaves Arts Council England much depleted and lacking both the internal expertise or staff resource to take on the major functions of MLA (e.g. Renaissance in the Regions). We agree with Mark Taylor, Director of the Museums Association, when he states that museums should not simply become a ‘sub-set’ of the arts and heritage but should have their own strategic body. However, if the merger does go ahead as anticipated, then at the very least ACE should be given the resource it needs to take over the functions of MLA successfully.

3.5 Film is not our area of professional expertise, so we find it hard to make informed comment about the abolition of the UK Film Council. It is clear, however, that the Lottery funding distributed through the UK Film Council will still have to be handed out by other means. Understandable concerns about excessive bureaucracy should not throw into question all the so-called quangos that distribute money to the arts and heritage. Decisions about how public money is spent should be taken with due regard to fairness and accountability, neither of which can be assured without adequate levels of staffing and proper administrative procedures.

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

4.1 We fully endorse the government’s proposal to re-distribute Lottery monies to the original ‘good causes’ of the arts, heritage and sport. At a time when other sources of public funding are likely to diminish, it is vitally important that we protect the investment made in the arts since the launch of the National Lottery in 1994. This investment has benefited visual artists in innumerable ways, for example through the creation of new exhibition spaces, education initiatives and public art schemes. The infrastructure for making and showing art outside London is immeasurably stronger than it was 20 years ago. But these hard-won advances could easily be lost if Lottery funding is not diverted back to the arts in order to mitigate the worst effects of spending cuts in other spheres, particularly in Local Authority and Arts Council budgets.

4.2 Contemporary art is especially vulnerable in such a climate, because it is inherently experimental, often provokes adverse media reaction and has little support from politicians wary of its more controversial aspects. Yet contemporary artists ask questions of and about the world in which we live; they make us look at it with fresh eyes and stimulate new ways of thinking about it; they provide pleasure, inspiration and intellectual enrichment. In a knowledge-based economy that relies on visual as well as verbal communication, the ability to decode, interpret and use visual images and structures is increasingly important in developing critical thought and debate. A healthy visual arts sector is vital to the wider well-being of the creative economy.

4.3 One major concern is the question of how the lottery bodies support collecting and collections. For a long time it has been clear that the cost of major works of contemporary art far exceeds the purchasing power of public sector galleries; and once galleries stop collecting contemporary art, it can be very hard to gain foothold again. Under current guidelines for lottery funding, it is not clear how acquisitions of contemporary art for public collections can be funded, since the Heritage Lottery Fund will not fund the acquisition of works that are less then 10 years old. Yet the art of today is the heritage of tomorrow. There are good economic reasons for acquiring art at the time that it is made. If we ignore the art of the present until it is recognised as important, we may by then no longer have the means of acquiring it at all. Even 10 years may be too long to wait, as is evidenced by the fact that the YBAs are scarcely represented at all in public collections outside London.

5. Can businesses and philanthropists play a long-term role in funding arts at a national and local level? And should there be more Government incentives to encourage private donations?

5.1 Business sponsorship and philanthropy are certainly to be encouraged, but past experience suggests that it will prove difficult to attract on any significant scale , especially in our less wealthy regional towns and cities . Benefactors generally want to be associated with high-profile projects which will generate good PR and create a positive ‘brand’ association in the mind of the consumer. Contemporary art, which often questions the social, political and aesthetic status quo , finds it hard to compete with the (on the whole) much safer world of classical music, ballet and blockbuster exhibitions .

5.2 If a culture of philanthropic giving is genuinely to develop, it will take time and require support from government. We fully support The Art Fund ’s long -standing campaign for improved tax incentives to encourage cultural donations and individual giving to museums.

September 2010