The Bishop of Leicester’s plea for artists to run Leicester’s new Performing Arts Centre was timely in view of the recent Arts Council of England’s funding report. Reactions to ACE’s recent decisions, the vote of no-confidence from actors and on-line petition to support Dedalus books highlight the usual weaknesses of arts funding in the UK, namely that it’s bureaucratic, arbitrary and, if ACE decides to stop funding, it stops suddenly and finally. There’s no gradual decline and no time to find alternative sources of funding so ACE funding was never reliable.For all its social inclusiveness targets and promotions, ACE always treated arts practitioners (ie artists and arts organisations) with a one size fits all approach. Whichever grant you were applying for, everyone had to complete the same form. Sounds fair until you consider a small poetry society run solely by volunteers in their free time squashed around day jobs, family and their own artistic endeavours, were completing the same forms as regional or national touring companies with full-time administrators who were completing the same forms in their working day.
One form ran to 13 pages. In the middle of a working day I had a phone call from ACE’s then regional literature officer suggesting that the literature group merely sat round talking to each other. I pointed out that 3% of our audience were asylum seekers, that 22% of our membership lived in areas identified by the city council as being “priority areas of need” and spent twenty minutes giving the officer reasons for justifying us having a grant. That call finished ten minutes before the officer was due to go into the meeting to discuss whether or not the literature group would get the grant. If I didn’t have a good memory or didn’t have the literature group’s paperwork with me, the group would have never have received the grant.
But why was it so significant that 3% of the audience were asylum seekers, that 22% lived in areas of “priority need”? Why was it not enough that the group was bringing established, award-winning, contemporary poets to read in Leicester and promoting those readings to as wide an audience as possible? Because ACE insisted the arts were a vehicle for social inclusion. Though how inclusive it is to fund an arts organisation targeting a specifically focused, socially excluded group without any plans to integrate the group within the mainstream (eventually) completely eludes me. All I could see were ghettos where it was more important to label the artist by their socially-exclusive group than it was to focus on the art being produced.
Hence the very welcome small print stating that ACE should focus on funding excellence in arts. Finally! OK it’s going to raise even more debate about how excellence is defined and who does the defining. But if it enables the Bishop of Leicester to request that Leicester’s Performing Arts Centre includes artists on its board, then maybe ACE have finally realised they’re there to fund the arts. Now, if only it would also reconsider some of its funding cuts…