The debate about arts funding distribution across England and the unfairness of allocation decisions bubbles up from time to time. Last week three arts professionals, Peter Stark, Christopher Gordon and David Powell independently and through self-funded means published a report ‘Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital’ with the intention of bursting the bubble on the debate so that radical change might happen once and for all.
At the heart of the matter is the problem that London receives the vast majority of funding which is in theory available to the whole country, something which becomes more unfair sounding when you consider that only 15% of the population live in London. The report states:
Interestingly to enter this debate at some point or other you always seem to end up feeling obliged to state where you live and have worked as if this might substantiate or deflect your views. For my part, I am Kent born, North East raised and now London resident with a couple of years in Peterborough for good measure and I would like to offer up some further 'rebalancing' considerations. This is not an attempt to say these figures are incorrect, more to suggest that there are deep instrumental reasons why the disparity exists and that additional data would give us a more rounded view on the blunt ratios above.
When it comes to these figures you’ve got to tread a little carefully between the different sources of money that the Arts Council receives. Treasury funding pays for the core funding of those who are part of the ‘national portfolio’ which has different processes to the Lottery money distributed through Grants for the arts – which is to say there may be more behind the scenes that underpins how and why decisions are made - or there may be not.
Number of applications received vs the number of applications funded
It would be useful to see the data on the number of applications received vs the number of applications funded. Are there a disproportionate number of applications received in London compared to the rest of the country? Is this because there are there more artists in London per head of population? Are the networks stronger?
Those students who are taught about funding programmes like Grants for the arts leave university or college better equipped to apply for and be successful in obtaining funding than those that do not. This has an impact on where applications from the next generation of artists come from. Are London universities better at this? Is it because there are more arts colleges in London?
Capacity to support and develop artists
When I was Resource Development Officer at Arts Council England, North East I spent time with artists, arts organisations and local authority arts officers to encourage and support them to design strong projects to put forward to Grants for the arts. As a competitive pot, it would be up to those on decision making panels to award funding based on scoring and what else was on the table that week vs the amount of money available. Now that Arts Council offices have been pared back to a minimum number of staff the capacity to support and develop artists and arts organisations by those that understand the funding programme from the inside has been substantially reduced. The report advocates closer relationships between Arts Council and local authorities. In practice this means time consuming relationship management across all tiers of a local authority from Officer to Head of Department, to Chief Executive to Councillors and I’m not sure the ability to do that effectively and in all areas exists now, even if it did then. The disparity is a historic problem so obviously we were not doing enough back then to increase the number and the quality of applications within our own region. Or perhaps it was just about having proportionately less money compared to London.
Increase postcode pedantry?
The figures quoted (I’m assuming, I don't think it said) are based on postcode of applicant. This doesn’t take into account where the artists who get paid by the project are from, nor the beneficiaries who take part, experience or benefit in some way from the project. In my experience this can vary hugely, international artists or artists from different parts of the country get employed, and people who may wish to and be able to travel to take part. So the fact that the applicant is has a London postcode does not necessarily mean this is where the full impact of the work takes place.
One way of being more accurate is to collect the postcodes of everyone involved. Having worked on a project that did this because of ERDF and ESF requirements, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that this is the way to go (and with over 5000 beneficiaries, I'm having flashbacks just thinking about it) but it undoubtedly gave a better reflection of where the geographic impact of the programme was felt, or was not felt.
It’s also unclear how touring work is considered. If based on postcode of applicant, take for example of the Haywood Gallery’s Haywood Touring it might be that the London based home of the gallery appears as the only beneficiary rather than the venues and communities that received the work outside of London.
Would it be beneficial in the short term to fund lower scoring projects in order to build experience and capacity in the long run outside of London? If more funding was available would it get spent in those areas currently under represented? Does that give us the best art and the best opportunity for artists? Does that matter if it changes the cultural landscape of the country for the better in the long run?
Colleagues with better knowledge of the DCMS’s Taking Part than I would be able to critique it as a tool for collecting engagement with the arts data – so a coherent attempt to review and improve this survey would seem constructive and timely. Alongside the notion of ‘cold spots’ (which I'm not sure really helps) could be a way of focussing future funding like the current initiative Creative People and Places is attempting to do. One of the major challenges the arts faces in my opinion is that only but the largest organisations or those that run commercially are really visible to the public. Perhaps the current work by the Warwick Commission and the Arts and Humanities Research Council on public value and culture might decide that improving these measurement tools would be a constructive way to better understand regional disparity data and the interplay between them.
Whipping boys aside...
It is easy to turn London into the ‘whipping boy’ and the report rightly says that there are massive differences in access to and engagement in the arts across London, a challenge in its own right but outside of this thorny issue, the trick with London is to find ways to maximise its creative energy and attraction for the benefit of the rest of the country – and that this is seen as a two way street.