Article published on Arts Professional
Huge energy has been expended by Arts Council England (ACE) on distributing the £1.7 billion Culture Recovery Fund (CRF). There is a clear need for this distribution of funds at pace: the money has provided life support to many large institutions that would have struggled to survive lockdown measures without it. However, distributing this amount of money in a matter of months, rather than the 2/3 years it would take under normal circumstances, has left ACE fully stretched and with little (if any) capacity to focus on much else. As a result, other priorities including diversity, innovation and enterprise have slipped down the agenda.
The passionate calls by ACE to do better on diversity, from Darren Henley and Nick Serota, in the wake of George Floyd and the rise Black Lives Matter movement have inevitably played second fiddle to seismic effort invested to preserve larger cultural institutions. BAME organisations, typically individual freelancers or 2/3 person businesses, have not benefited equally from the bailout so far.
It is not too late, but urgent action is needed
Innovation and enterprise
The emphasis on recovery has also meant that in addition to the CRF, all of ACE’s unrestricted budget including budgets for enterprise and innovation has been diverted to the bailout, a decision which if left uncorrected could have a disastrous impact on our sector for years to come. With the economy in crisis, an inevitable sustained tough macro-economic environment ahead of us and the major shifts in practice on how arts and culture are being created, distributed and consumed, we need to grasp the opportunity to re-divert budgets to finding solutions to these major, more medium-term problems. ACE and DCMS need to analyse and reflect on the shifting cultural landscape and double down on investment in enterprise and innovation to respond to these shifts.
Where do we go from here?
It is not too late, but urgent action is needed. Oliver Dowden has been able to secure another tranche of CRF funding (c.£418m) from the Treasury. This, combined with a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel on Covid-19, makes it the perfect time for DCMS and ACE to raise their respective heads and look beyond what is to be recovered. They must look forward to what needs to be cultivated, including a more equitable funding system. Now is the time to redress any long-term funding imbalances, broaden access to all the UK’s best creative talent (including those from BAME communities) and to focus attention on shaping the new arts and culture landscape that will emerge out of this Covid period. Sector recovery, diversity, enterprise and innovation priorities should never be seen as competing priorities. They are inextricably linked in my view. Focusing on one at the expense of the others is folly.
The education, retail, technology, hospitality and business sectors are being reshaped as we speak. DCMS and ACE need to quickly come to terms with the fact that arts and culture will not be immune and that the sector, as it was pre-Covid, will not be recovered in its entirety. Some organisations who have received CRF cash will unfortunately not survive lockdown measures. They need to be let go and space must be created to explore what the new future looks like. We can then invest in new systems, new structures, and new organisations to deliver this. Some smaller and not yet formed organisations will emerge and thrive in a post-Covid world. They will be the engine for growth of the UK’s new creative and cultural industries. For us not to invest in these organisations would put at risk the UK’s position as an international creative powerhouse and, in my view, would be cultural suicide.
I am asking that £209m, half of the new CRF funding of £418m, be targeted at this more forward-looking and sustainable agenda. One which acknowledges that all will not be as it was in our sector and embraces innovation, enterprise, and diversity to build a more dynamic and resilient sector going forward. This is less than 10% of the total already invested by DCMS and ACE so is proportionate and affordable. We should act now.