Let's create the kind of solid public support that makes cuts to the arts politically dangerous or, even better, unthinkable
The Guardian, by Three Johns & Shelagh
Monday 13 January 2014
A Plan B for arts funding in the UK: some organisations have been pursuing it for years, but many more need to. Why is Arts Council England's report on arts funding called Towards Plan A? The result of its State of the Arts strand in partnership with the RSA is essentially an exhortation to the cultural sector to provide better evidence to government. Secretaries of state for culture and education on both sides of the party divide have pleaded for more evidence, particularly on economic impact.
But that's not what's needed. National and local governments don't take decisions about arts funding based on evidence, however convincing it is. Instead, they act in the context of the wider economic picture, and in light of their own prejudices, world-views, ideologies and instincts. That's what makes politics, politics, rather than managerialism.
This government is driven by an overarching prejudice that guides its actions, and explains its failures. It sees the public and private sectors as separate and oppositional, rather then symbiotic and collaborative. It draws no distinction between, on the one hand, organisations that are independent and only partially funded by public money (like the vast majority of arts organisations who are honest, pretty efficient, and deliver a lot of public value) and some of the creakier, dodgier and more self-indulgent bits of the public sector.
Unfortunately for the arts, they are part of the public realm, dedicated to public purpose. As public space turns private (think shopping malls instead of streets; housing developments instead of parks) cultural buildings from theatres to libraries to heritage sites become all that's left of the shrinking public realm. No wonder the arts are under attack. Evidence will not change that – but is there a plan B that will?
The haves and have-nots
Just like the country's citizens, there are two camps: the haves and the have-nots. The haves are the big beasts, mainly in London, who will continue to get funded regardless. They are well-connected and will still get the vast majority of donations and sponsorship from businesses and philanthropists. Let's not forget that many of them are held in great esteem and affection by the public. Do they need evidence for advocacy? Well yes, though many of them have a more effective route to political persuasion in the form of trustees who can pick up the phone and dial numbers 10 and 11.
Outside London, there will be councils that get it – who fund the arts whatever their financial situation – and councils that don't, who will cut the arts whatever their financial situation. Will robust evidence and advocacy save the have-nots? No. But will plan B? Possibly.
There is nothing new about this proposal. Five years ago we said to the cultural sector: "What culture needs is a mandate from the public … professionals need to build greater legitimacy directly with citizens." Recent revelations in Greece explain why. When recession hit Athens, all cultural funding was cut. The arts community protested, but the government ignored them. The arts community then asked for public support in their battle with the politicians, and there was silence.
How many arts organisations can honestly say that their local communities would erect the barricades to defend them? Plan B involves creating the kind of solid public support that makes cuts politically dangerous or, even better, unthinkable.
Some cultural organisations have been pursuing plan B for years – it's in their blood, and it's why they thrive. But many more need to:
• Create relationships rather than transactions with their communities
• Extend their reach and improve ratings – bums on seats do matter; so does critical and public response to their works
• Make their governance reflect their community
• Be clear about their artistic and civic purposes and shout about them in plain and simple ways
• Not treat public funding as a proxy for public engagement
• Use language that everybody understands instead of advocacy-speak
• Be as creative and innovative in their organisational life as they are, or as they should be, in their artistic endeavours
• Use their spaces as much as possible – public buildings should be used every hour of the day and night
• Collaborate as much as possible, with other local arts organisations, community organisations, public agencies and businesses
• Be financially careful and able to show they give great value for money
• Show they care
Cultural organisations should be loved and cherished by their communities of interest and/or geography. Communities = people, and people = voters. But people are not only voters who can influence politicians; they are individuals who can dig into their pockets.
This doesn't mean abandoning public funding; there will always be organisations that need public funding to be creative, or to serve communities that cannot afford to support them. But if organisations do get total public support, they will be able to flourish without grants. Their existence will no longer be subject to the vagaries of public funding or the whims of philanthropists.
The success of plan B might look like a supreme irony – turning the arts into the private sector – but it's not. Instead it sees cultural organisations pursuing artistic and social purposes with direct accountability to, and support from, members of the public. Plan A is not a radical new idea; it's a failed old idea. We need something different.
This is an edited version of a piece published on a-n, the artists' network
Three Johns & Shelagh are John Holden, John Kieffer, John Newbigin and Shelagh Wright
Canopy Arts Desk
Tammy Hampel (Isaacson)
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