Anonymous: The Funding Party

I have been at both ends of funding decisions, doing very well in many cases while also losing almost everything. But nobody died.

On the other hand, I’m sick to death of hearing the phrase ‘difficult decision’. It’s very rare that this ‘difficult decision’ had any impact upon those making the decisions or indeed was driven by the policies they espouse to be working under.

As I understood it, the National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) application process for Arts Council England (ACE) regular funding for the years 2012-15 was intended, in part, to encourage those successful organisations to develop a role in their region and take more responsibility for their sector locally. As far as I can see, there are very few effective examples of any such activity taking place. Instead it seems that the strategy facilitated each regional ACE office to make small minded provincial decisions, many of which were taken by individuals who have since left their jobs; some very strangely with generous sabbaticals – and I had always thought sabbaticals were intended as training, work breaks or for contributions to other sectors for those in post. Those involved cleverly avoided going back on their promise to the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) of no more generous redundancy packages (it seems that the BBC hasn’t avoided that particular problem).

Now, the difficult decisions ACE and DCMS should really be considering is funding per head of population in each region. These range from about £2 per head to over £20 in London, a fact regularly waved away as being far too difficult to untangle and rife with historical anomalies. This has a major impact upon the resources supporting practitioners in all parts of the country. When London mainly escaped the cuts to organisations, which took place around the country, then investment in regional development was most impacted. I would contest that for many years regional galleries and museums (in tandem with the commercial sector) have been the nurturing places for emerging and new talent. This was the case even before the current economic challenges and cuts in funding. Many household names had their first significant opportunities away from the capital, which were critical to their later success. It’s also well known that approximately 90% of arts sponsorship goes to the capital – surely this is a further argument for increasing funding support in the rest of England?

Protecting historical funding patterns does a disservice to artists across the country, particularly when dis-investment is focused outside major conurbations. This is somewhat balanced by the new strategic touring funding offered by ACE, which requires touring work to go to places where people are less likely to see art. However, this seems to be structured for performance works over the visual arts since the guidelines talk about promoters – not such a useful description of activity in the visual art world. Is it really true that over £1m has been allocated to taking ‘Artists Rooms’ to rural places? This seems a very easy (but expensive) way to meet the strategic goals, placing Museum quality works in village halls – six or seven years after the Southern Arts Touring Exhibition Service which took contemporary practice by emerging and mid career artists to village halls, was cut from regular funding. This scheme managed to both support those artists and take contemporary visual art to places that would otherwise not usually experience it. Those with the loudest voices seem to be getting most of the funding.

Myself, and others, have proposed that the national portfolio organisations (NPO’s) take first stage responsibility for all, or at the least individual artists’, Grants For The Arts (GFTA) applications to ACE. This would achieve three things immediately: lighten the load for ACE, which has taken successive hits from Government to reduce admin costs (i.e. people); share that workload with institutions all over the country; and encourage local responsibility in major arts organisations. I know of some visual arts NPO directors who would welcome this, and many others who would find it intolerable. The regularly funded NPO’s have a very mixed track record of supporting local initiatives: I can recollect a local small arts organisation getting an ACE grant to creatively ‘welcome’ one of the signature Cultural Olympiad projects (don’t get me started) in a particular town, where the arts organisation could hardly get the time of day from that town’s NPO.

Much as ACE has tried to get the sector to contribute to arts development, many decisions are still taken behind closed doors, outside of any formal arrangements. Access is usually restricted to the directors of NPO’s and ACE officials (or ex-ACE officers), sometimes in consultation with other major bodies, such as the British Council. Occasionally ACE invites particular individuals to undertake some work it thinks is required. It helps hugely if you know or have met senior ACE officials, but you can also blot your copybook if you’re a little too frank in your criticism or disagree with their agenda. Sometimes, even partners in projects are unaware of the full picture. I know of one instance when an NPO agreed with ACE to take the lead on a regional project; other partners were told that this was a generous gesture being made by the NPO. Only later did the partners discover that a significant fee was paid to the lead NPO for services rendered.

I apologise to artists for the technical abbreviations in this piece. Artists have been very quick to tell me that they do not recognise such terms, and of course, it’s only those of us for whom these terms are important that learn them. Is it a measure of a strategy’s success that the re-titling of its partner’s roles are completely invisible to some of the most important stakeholders?

I applaud the sentiments of the Arts Council’s current strategy ‘Great Art for Everyone’, but might it have been a more appropriate approach in a time of plenty rather than a time of drought? In addition to restricted budgets this has placed yet more emphasis upon building and attracting audiences (with the resultant allocation of resources), but then I suspect this was a highly political approach to serve new masters. When, however, was the making of great art politically approved? If anything this worthy approach is encouraging more collection based exhibitions, more exhibitions of work from artists’ studios (so, only already validated art works and works made by established practitioners, both recognisable to the public). Instead of creating commissions and paid work for artists or development work with emerging artists, there is a ubiquity of programming amongst the larger institutions as they jostle for primacy; each wanting to fund the next international sensation. So again, fewer paid, effective, opportunities for emerging and mid-career practitioners.

Imagine this. The world turned upside down. The majority of funding goes directly to individual artists; organisations would only have a limited staff and infrastructure funding and have to ask artists for further financial resources.

Instead of separating creativity and resources, put them together in the hands of the creators, empower the artist. I believe artists are as good as, if not better than, most of us at recognising great art and delivering best practice.

What might the sector look like in these circumstances? What would this change in priority mean in practice? Who would be the star makers then?

This article was originally part of Pamphlets, a publication by Artquest in 2014, where artists and art world professionals were invited to write anonymously about what’s wrong with the art world.

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