Some initial thoughts on the NPO Announcement
Updated: Aug 7
To be absolutely clear: I am writing this in my freelance capacity. I am not representing any of the NPOs that I have and continue to work for.
TL;DR: I am grumpy. I am writing to try and clarify my thoughts on this.
Some of it was based in ideas of justice, turned into a bad-faith form.
There weren’t any good ways to do this, but it needn’t have been this bad.
To argue against it, we need to understand what we’re arguing against, and look at bad arguments among ourselves.
It seems more like funding for entertainment-on-the-side than a strategy to reshape a sector.
I Wanted To Live In York
I really like York. It’s got a thriving community & professional theatre scene I’ve enjoyed working in, it’s near the countryside, has a good university library, people I love, and I seriously considered living there.
Why did I not? Because there is not enough work in York to sustain a career. I would have to get almost every single creative job as a writer or director going to work full time in York.
Which would mean, in practice, a life living out a suitcase, touring to wherever did have work. That’s something I’m increasingly less fine with as I reach an age where I quite like waking up and knowing I am in my bed, and not some random sofa in digs.
This is, in microcosm, why arts workers congregate in arts hubs.
I live in the London periphery. In an hour or so, I can get to central London, where there are hundreds of arts venues, and tens of thousands of artists across commercial and subsidised sectors. There are jobs and inspirations.
As a producer and artist, I get to hire and work alongside world-class artists, because the supply of artists dwarfs the demand. A larger pool of talent is a great asset.
Coming with that is a wider pool of people who might be future collaborators or commissioners, who are able to come to see my work and return to their own beds. This is useful for my career, and leads to a virtuous cycle for London’s arts that then sprawls out to drain other rivals.
I, like many other arts workers who are not flexibly-located composers and writers, struggle to see a sustainable career outside a London-ish base.
These are pragmatic facts in the UK’s current arts scene. They have been recognised as bugs for a while, with no easy fixes.
If you’re reading this and don’t know, Arts Council England, forcefully ‘encouraged’ by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport, has recently moved a large amount of funding out of London, and towards the regions with its National Portfolio Programme.
I am not devoted to the idea of subsidy. I get the impression the current government is quite hostile to it, and it is there that the blame for much of what is discussed later should be aimed; they set the terms and the context of the argument.
But if you want to create a thriving cultural sector that doesn’t need subsidy, you’ll likely need hubs of concentrated artists to achieve the virtuous cycle London has experienced. Other hubs could do that, but aren’t being made.
That is to say: this funding will not allow me to live in York and work in the arts, and I’m not sure it would allow me to live anywhere else either.
There’s a major opera company in London that’s collaborated on a prime time TV show on a major network, supported the NHS, worked with influencers and celebrities to popularise its work, offered a vast range of regular discounted tickets to marginalised groups. Senior figures in ACE praised it as “one of the most dynamic and imaginative organisations in the country.”
There’s another one that has an outreach and education department doing its level best, but rarely at the heart of the organisation’s programming or commissioning, though it does have a network of cinema broadcasts. It provides international stars and performances.
ACE’s branding around this is desperately cool:
- #LetsCreate (that the hashtag needs an apostrophe that would itself break the hashtag is… upsetting)
- Suggested banners including “Find your wonder” “Hey you!” and “We’re bringing creativity and culture to your doorstop”
- a range of flashy, rapid-cutting trailers.
Given that, I ought to be surprised that it’s the second opera company that kept its core funding.
I’m not. I share the unhappiness of many colleagues at the decision and its likely consequences.
I suspect that the branding around the announcement is rather less reflective of its contents than the sombre press conference of three formally-dressed people at a table in a meeting room in a state of solemn discomfort at the choices they’d had to make.
As before, I write to clarify my thoughts.
What Is The F*cking Point? (Of ACE)
This is a question I think is always worth asking about the arts, particularly of individual works, but also here.
In general terms, ACE’s stakeholders variously view subsidy as a way to serve not-entirely-identical goals:
1. support assets of national prestige
2. support valuable art-for-art’s-sake
3. invest in the culture sector economically
4. encourage virtuous goals, divided between:
4a. work to bring new audiences to cultural activity.
4b. work to allow non-professionals the chance to participate in cultural activity.
4c. work to support educational activities, often those cut from state provision under austerity.
5. to shield any of the above from commercial pressures, such as arts activity in areas where local economics or population would make such work unprofitable.
ACE’s recent justifications for subsidy have tended towards 3, with a pinch of 4a.
A view that the arts benefit the wider economy and society, provide many jobs, and benefit from subsidy to support certain strands of work (especially experiments by groups ACE has historically underfunded).
This investment is often magnified: by funding the National Theatre to a certain baseline, the NT is able to invest in other ways to make money, from tickets to merchandise to commercial partnerships.
This fundamentally economic philosophy is why commercial arts organisations benefited from ACE in the pandemic, many for the first time (other than subsidised developing much of the talent they rely upon).
But it smells like DYCP pressured ACE towards something else, because otherwise we’d be seeing something more like an industrial strategy - a Northern Powerhouse-type support for cultural investment in population centres, as with the creation of hubs of expertise in science.
And we’re not. There are many areas where there’s a lone arts organisation in its field in a region.
If you’re a musician considering your options right now, and ACE has placed a lone music NPO in (say) Ashford, Calderdale, or Stroud [an entirely random selection based on skimming ACE’s NPO spreadsheet], would you gamble your livelihood on that organisation (often at the smallest tier of NPOs) employing you throughout the year?
Nor would you want to gamble on it expanding soon, given the challenges of growing audiences (and thus income, and potential philanthropy) are inevitably harder in areas with lower population.
More population = more potential audiences to expand into.
More population = small minorities are larger numerically (2% = 20,000 people), and can sustain shows aimed at attracting them in as a further audience to expand into, whether that's fantasy nerds or people with protected characteristics.
So something else is going on.
Justice And Arts Subsidy
The funding landscape is grim, with too small a pot being competed over in line with a set of rules nobody’s entirely clear on.
Like so many bad decisions made by bad governments, this one seems to be based on reasonable, logical steps outlined by others, plus a steaming pile of populism and bad faith, and manages to injure both the bird in hand and the bird in the bush.
I am, as charitably as I can, going to outline what seems to have been the discussion.
To clarify: I am not outlining what I think should have been the discussion. That’s quite another conversation.
1. The UK is over-centralised. It ought to have multiple hubs of excellence, as with the USA or Germany, across science, industry, the arts, and other sectors.
This has been a truism of UK politics and policy discussion for as long as I’ve been aware of politics. This is not my field, but experts seem to have a reasonable consensus that London’s dominates to an unhealthy extent.
2. The gulf in per capita subsidy between London and the rest of the UK is far too large (£6 outside London, £20-25 in London), and has been since ACE was founded.
I strongly agree with this claim.
While the gulf is not so bad as when ACE’s first chairman, John Maynard Keynes, only funded London organisations he admired (with admirable but somewhat patrician motives), it does matter.
This subsidy does contribute to London’s success, and ability to produce world-class output.
The idea that London should continue to have such a disproportionate funding deal is often justified by the quality of what is made there.
But the size of gap makes it very difficult to disagree that at least some organisations must have been funded in London that would not have been funded elsewhere.
If we accept that London’s success is (to a significant extent) due to subsidy, and the historic imbalance that caused it, then we must also accept that an injustice has been done.
For if that funding had been more equally distributed, we would see the benefits of that long-term investment in not-London, much as we see it in London now. Redistributing funding will allow excellent creators chances they’d never have got otherwise.
(Sidenote: I have been sad to see some colleagues I respect complaining about the decision on the grounds that London’s work is simply better than not-London’s, in quite a dismissive tone. While this is an upsetting time to work in the arts, I can’t admire such comments.)
I find some echoes here of conversations around reparations from the imperial core to former colonies, or at least museum-piece repatriations (The Parthenon Marbles debate etc.).
Many people agree, in principle, that the current state of affairs is unjust. But faced with the discomfort of actually doing something about it, ever-higher standards of perfection are required.
Nobody, including ACE itself, has said London should not receive more per capita than other regions as the capital and cultural hub. However, they have said that a four- or fivefold greater per capita spend, reflecting historic and ongoing injustices, cannot be allowed to stand forever, and that has been a reasonable aim for some time.
At which point the ever-greater-perfection argument is to wait until the size of the pot can be substantially increased.
And I decided to do some maths.
3. The amount of funding available is not going to substantially increase.
We would all like this not to be the case. But it is, at least for the foreseeable future.
As a rough estimate, to raise the per capita spend to London levels across the country would cost:
Gap: £20 London - £6 not London = £14 uplift per head.
England Population (56,489,800, per 2021 census) - London Metropolitan Area Population (14,257,962, per Eurostat) = 42,231,838 people.
42,231,838 x £14 = £591,245,732.
This back-of-an-envelope calculation is obviously approximate, but even allowing it to be in the right order of magnitude, £100,000,000 is a lot of extra Lottery players.
The old NPO scheme spent about £369,151,501 per year (according to ACE’s spreadsheet), so it would be at least a 25% increase, and likely more around an 100-150% increase.
This impossible uplift is where ACE gets bludgeoned by DCMS (even though it managed to get about £40 million a year more).
Because without increasing the amount of funding available, the only options on the table are:
A: Continue funding London to a disproportionate extent.
B: Transform the UK's funding and theatre landscape to make it either more reliant on philanthropy and commercial investment, or somehow cheaper (via efficiencies etc.).
C: Cut an enormous amount of funding from London.
I would love to see more arts funding, but I also doubt I will with any likely government in the next few years. This is why many finer commentators than me have rightly emphasised that the government is to blame for this debacle, not ACE.
B would require, frankly, a lot of more work than I think ACE was able to do (though it might be a de facto outcome of what has been done).
This left ACE with the unenviable task of implementing C, under government pressure.
4. Nobody has a right to subsidy.
An honest Arts Council England must hold this principle.
There should be clear principles by which funding is allocated, serving specified goals. Otherwise it is not fair.
At the very least, we can all agree that it was not fair when the real principle of funding was “has Keynes enjoyed your work?”
My rule of thumb, even as an opera-lover, is “could Arts Council England plausibly defy Keynes and stop funding the Royal Opera House entirely?”
If, for example, the Royal Opera House did no outreach and education work, raised the price of the cheapest ticket to £500, and raised the salary of its top twenty employees to over £1 million a year each, would ACE leave?
If not, then we can conclude it is not fair.
5. Who gets subsidised is always a choice
I suspect we can agree that historic funding patterns have not been neutral.
In the 1940s and 1950s, ACGB funding the Royal Opera House but not music halls, as both proud traditions of British cultural life faced oblivion without government help, reflected their warm-slippered middle class aesthetic tastes (unless we want to accept their ideas of high culture’s superiority).
Since I believe arts funding should be fair, I do not believe that the subsidised opera sector innately deserves subsidy.
We must articulate why opera deserves subsidy more than other possible beneficiaries.
Paul Carey-Jones puts it better: "What value is an opera company to the wider community? Let’s talk about any taxpayer-funded national opera company - that company has to be providing value not just to the people who buy tickets, but to people who don’t.”
A Little Side-Branch Into Opera
ENO means a great deal to me. I am sad and frightened about what will happen to it and its people. I invite you to sign this petition to try and maintain it.
I promise that I will write a case for opera as a way to atone for what I am about to write.
But amid the upset, weak, abbreviated arguments for opera have been aired. While it would be polite to not write the next bit, I think the only way to make a strong case for opera is via identifying the bad case for opera.
- Cultural arguments
— Opera is an old tradition, and therefore must be preserved (Fashions change. The past is littered with dead artforms. Including plenty of other theatrical traditions.)
— People need to engage with the arts and culture as a human need (Yes. That’s why they watch, for example, television. The arts does not exclusively mean opera, and opera is not an essential part of humanity’s cultural mix.)
— Great art does not need to be popular; it is such a virtue in itself it deserves funding (so why not, say, podcasting, at which the UK excels and experiments?)
— Other European capitals have multiple opera houses (and also better regional theatre support. We might also admire New York, or even a non-Western capital).
- Socio-economic arguments
— Opera is a public good (delivering what? If it serves a pragmatic purpose, is there a less inefficient way to do it?)
— Opera employs many people (who are certainly talented, but there are many other sectors where subsidising employment leads to greater tangible rewards for the government).
— They’re only cutting opera and the arts because free thought is a threat to them! (I am… reasonably confident that, while creating quite masterful craft, ENO was not cut by virtue of its entirely revolutionary politics. Call me a cynic, but I’m not sure the revolution starts at the opera house.)
— Opera and art music cannot be profitable, and therefore require subsidy (thus the state must fund it forever? This seems like an argument for the state to either require higher ticket prices, more sales, or greater efficiency savings. It is not like other arts sectors do not fund innovation.)
It is not impossible to make a case for opera. Some of these arguments can be made well, steering between accepting the overly pragmatic socio-economic arguments and the frankly-irrelevant-to-government-policy aesthetic-cultural arguments.
Subsidised opera’s loss would be a grievous loss to the arts life of this country, and harm many people I personally care about.
It certainly should not be cut as a kickable target.
But that does not mean it has a right to be subsidised, or even exist. That is the assumption that underlies the bad arguments above.
Music hall died. So can opera.
I have admired too much work in regional theatres and non-subsidised sectors and venues to comfortably accept that London and opera inherently deserve to be subsidised, or that subsidy is always the best means to support quality and innovation.
So let’s stare at the uncomfortable implications of what the claim ‘opera deserves to be subsidised as it historically has been’ about what does not deserve to be subsidised, rather than flimsily asserting we offer a public good like no other.
We might note that some of the best opera in the country is made by unsubsidised organisations, where money pours down to artists and core staff rather than being kept as far from them as possible.
We might also note that the 1920s light opera tradition alongside which ENO was founded branched off, via Rodgers & Hammerstein, into modern musical theatre. If we are making historical arguments about the 1920s, at least some conversation about where the living tradition has led (though the musical theatre sector has its own problems).
Above all, we might note that other art forms are available.
For my own part, if I believed that, by moving the funding from London organisations, ACE would ensure a thriving arts community in historically-underfunded parts of the country, and the decision as to who would be cut had been made fairly, I’d have a hard time arguing against it except out of my own fondness for those organisations.
The word ‘if’ is doing heavy lifting there.
Managing the Transition
This is where I think ACE had an impossible job, but could have done much better.
A lack of good faith and stakeholder support.
In short: an arms-length government body performing its core function should not attract conspiracy theories from some of its core stakeholders.
It should not be the case that critiques had moved, even before the announcement was first delayed, from the plausible “the government is unsupportive of the values of the London arts scene” to outright conspiracy theories about the government viewing the arts the greatest threat to their ideological policy goals, and seeking to entirely destroy them (as though the commercial and non-subsidised Fringe did not exist, let alone actually-active political movements with a plan to translate ideas into action beyond nice theatre).
Why was this the case?
To state the obvious, DCMS has not endeared itself to the subsidised arts sector in recent years. Leaving aside the struggles of the pandemic, a constant churn of ministers, some of whom have seemed actively hostile to the sector, and a lack of focused direction, all while navigating being cut off from global talent due to Brexit, has led to ill-feeling.
ACE is the conduit between DCMS and the sector. It already seems to have a tense relationship both. Even the largest beneficiaries seem to be, at best, polite about it; various ministers seem to wonder if ACE should exist.
These are not the ideal circumstances under which to try and effect the biggest transformation of arts policy in a generation.
I doubt that I’m alone in finding the gulf between the branding of the NPO launch (hooray! Arts for everyone! Levelling up!) and the press conference (this has been a very difficult process, and we are visibly uncomfortable about it) revealing.
Because it made it clear that, to some extent, ACE is deeply unhappy with what it is doing. It has built limited stakeholder consent to accept the ‘opportunities’ of relocating or defunding behind closed doors, when the effects are public.
Had ACE started in a position of trust, with open soundings on how to interpret its consultations and implement the policy it had been handed, the announcements might have been easier to accept.
A lack of an industrial plan.
ACE recognises the value of the London hub to the arts ecology, and had been given clear instructions from the government.
There is nowhere, as far as I can see, being set up as a counterweight.
Taking our musician thinking of moving to another city, or a fringe artist considering moving their company out of London, there is nowhere obvious to go.
Without a workforce, the arts are impossible.
An ill-managed transition.
Taking ENO as the premiere example: even if awarded the full £17 million transition funding available, why move it to Manchester? It would lose most of its current staff (who have lives in London), and then compete with Opera North.
This funding shift has not been a cause for celebration anywhere. Moving London organisations out to the regions has an uncomfortably missionary-like feeling.
Some organisations doing the kind of work ACE says it wants to support have been defunded; others that barely do such work have kept funding. Without open explanations, it is hard to understand why choices were made, and that leads to resentment and confusion.
Regional organisations getting an uplift do so into a deeply unstable funding environment. My especial concern is that those working away from large settlements will find NPO funding a disproportionate part of their funding mix, unable to substantially boost ticket income, and at a time when philanthropy is dwindling.
It does not feel like there is a stable, long-term plan. Without that, it is hard to plan for the future.
A lack of coordination with broader investment strategies
This funding shift is meant to be a part of a broader ‘levelling up’ programme that is not happening.
Supporting regional excellence in the arts would also require creating training centres for local needs, better transport for artists and audiences, regional networks for developing cultural policy alongside areas like tourism and human capital, and above all, long-term planning and investment.
With these absences, how are arts organisations, or any other kind of organisation, meant to thrive, potentially becoming independent of ACE as the government’s neoliberal tendencies would suggest they want?
Without them, how are we supposed to accept the painful blows to London as necessary reallocations, rather than losing the bird in hand to miss one in the bush?
Together, they made the NPO announcement at best a mixed blessing to the arts sector.
So what is ACE doing?
The Play’s The Thing
The best clue to the underlying philosophy of the priorities, I think, is the emphasis on arts for children.
This is always going to be a popular rallying cry. Nobody would rightly argue against opportunities for children, especially after a decade of austerity’s impacts on education and opportunities.
But what about other underserved groups? What of prisoners and disadvantaged adults, for example? Funding children is popular, and I fear that the priority comes from a desire to be popular, rather than prioritise based on need or just deserts.
Between arts for children, the strange language around the National Portfolio, and unsustainable, disparate organisations, I think what I fear in the NPO announcement is this:
A desire for the ACE National Portfolio to fund arts as a form of play, instructed by DCMS.
As a nice activity for people to have fun doing, rather than a professional sector of the economy producing work those people might enjoy, or supporting the aesthetic needs of humanity.
A form of populist boon, rather than a long-term plan.
There is nothing wrong with funding cultural activities for communities.
There is nothing wrong with not funding longstanding beneficiaries, if the new priorities are transparent and serving good ends in an effective way.
None of this is it to say that any of the organisations funded are undeserving, any more than to suggest those cut are deserving of that fate.
Nor is it, importantly, to say that being a National Portfolio Organisation is essential. It makes life easier in some ways; organisations and sectors can thrive without it.
But I struggle to see an overarching strategy for the culture sector in the NPO announcement, beyond the idea that if the government funds it, it’s as a nice treat for everyone, rather than a socially, aesthetically, and economically valuable sector that, if supported well, can drive its own growth.
I just wish DCMS would admit it, or that I am entirely wrong.