Written by Thushari Perera
The recently published Arts Council 2020-2030 strategy titled “Let’s Create” has caused quite a stir in the cultural sector. The sticking point is, as usual, funding.
Public funding will now need to be based on four investment principles.
The first one is “ambition and quality”. Cultural organisations will need to keep on improving their work via training and skill development with both old and new artists.
The second new principle is “dynamism” with an emphasis on entrepreneurship and partnerships and the promotion of a more transparent data culture (audience and impact).
The third principle is perhaps predictably “environmental responsibility”. It includes recycling, using less water and plastic.
The fourth investment principle and the most controversial so far is “inclusivity and relevance”.
Is There A Risk Of Confusing Cultural Communities with Cultural Equality?
According to The Museum Association “What was a goal of ‘diversity and skills’ in the previous strategy has now evolved into ‘inclusivity and relevance’, reflecting an ongoing dialogue that has led to diversity being viewed in a more holistic way: it is no longer just about recruiting staff and reaching audiences from diverse backgrounds, but about ensuring people feel included and represented every time they walk through the doors.”
The Times newspaper also had related concerns: “So could it be possible that for instance, the Royal Shakespeare Company would have its grant cut, even if it is creating wonderful drama, because its audiences remain predominantly white and middle-class or because it hasn’t installed enough solar panels in its premises?”.
To put it bluntly, the biggest fear is that diversity (read “ethnic minorities” and disadvantaged groups) will lower the cultural offer for the (white) middle classes, as more funding would go to community arts, amateur and youth organisations and less to public art considered “high-brow”.
The assumption is that “excellence” will be replaced with “relevance”. For instance, professional opera houses would lose out, while amateur art in village halls would thrive.
What Is Cultural Equality?
According to other commentators, the shift in attitude in this Arts Council England strategy is more about leveraging the professional and voluntary arts sector.
For Voluntary Arts, this new strategy values as much collaborative “cultural activities” in public spaces as much as the “cultural product”. It is about valuing the process of participation in a cultural community as much as the work that is produced.
In theory, opening up local museums and libraries is about removing geographical, economic and social barriers preventing many people from taking part in publicly funded cultural activity. In other words, it is about enabling access to cultural spaces for the have nots.
Voluntary Arts said: “Getting involved in creative activities in communities reduces loneliness, supports physical and mental health and wellbeing, sustains older people and helps to build and strengthen social ties. People everywhere tell us how much they value opportunities to develop and express their creativity, both on their own and with others.”
Local Arts Hubs: A Good Or A Bad Idea?
However, not all community representatives are happy with this new strategy. Hassan Vawda, a doctoral researcher working in arts, culture and community development thinks that this strategy could backfire.
In an article titled “Please don’t turn our libraries into trendy arts hubs”, he writes that statistics from the Department of Culture Media and Sports’ Taking Part survey show that “libraries are the only space used proportionally more by Black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) audiences than those who identify as White. In contrast, arts organisations and museums are used disproportionately by White audiences – despite more than a decade of language, policy and schemes aiming to support diversity.”
Valuing Diversity Or Reducing Costs?
It is probably still too early to know what the new Arts Council England strategy entails without first seeing the “delivery reports”. It seems to me that the whole strategy is currently more about streamlining costs in a post-Brexit era than truly “valuing diversity” or less privileged cultural communities.
The Times is right when it says that the real problem is that arts and music teaching is hardly publicly funded: “Although ACE oversees the music hubs that provide after-school and weekend instrumental tuition, the basic school curriculum is the responsibility of the education department.”
Even sporadic governmental cash injections to the Department for Education for the development of arts and music hubs are unlikely to change the systemic lack of funding for those who are priced out of (private) tuition, i.e. working-class communities and disadvantaged social groups, whether they are Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic or not.
Image Credits: Pixabay
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