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Dec 2 / Simon

Insight: The battle for funding

A recent report claimed that Arts Council The Stage 28/11/2013
England heavily skews its funding rowards London. But is the sotuation as clear cut as it seems? Simon Tait questions some of the assertions made

It came as a shock, seized as it was by the BBC’s arts editor Will Gompertz and thrust on to the Today Programme – in violation, it might be added, of the embargo which was for four hours later – and telling us that arts subsidy is so out of kilter that Londoners, per capita, are getting 15 times what those living in the region are.

The report, Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital: A contribution to the debate on national policy for the arts and culture in England, aims show that the arts council’s distribution is heavily weighted on the capital. It is written by three very eminent arts administrators who, separately and sometimes together, have been involved with the arts especially n the regions, since the dark days of the 1980s.

They write from experience. It celebrates 50 years since Jennie Lee, the first arts minister, published her white paper, A Policy for the Arts: The First Steps, which said: “If the eager and gifted, to whom we must look for leadership in every field, are to feel as much at home in the north and west as in and near London, each region will require high points of artistic excellence”. They counter it with a quote from David Cameron from just last month: This country has been too London-centric for far too long”.

The report is a fine polemic, but is it a reliable factual report?

The dramatic statistic tells us that while the average arts spend per head by ACE in 2012/13 was £14.51, but within that the average spend per Londoner is £68.99 while for the rest of England it’s a mere £4.58.

But the local authority spend in the mix is missing, and at least one London council has declared that all its arts subsidy is being scrapped; others are cutting dramatically.

And of the money spent in London, a large proportion goes to the national companies based there – where else would they be? Butt he National Theatre tours the regions constantly, the Tate has branches in Liverpool and St Ives, the four great symphony orchestras the capital boasts have residences in regions for parts of each season as well as touring, all activities at least partly paid for from the London column in the accounts book.

Sponsorship, too, is focussed more on London than anywhere else. Some analyses of individual giving put it at 90% going to London, but there is a fog around what is individual giving and what the real sources of the gifts are. Some reckoning lumps all private support under the word “philanthropy”, and this report puts private support of all sorts for the arts at 82% quoted most recently by Arts & Business for 2011/12. The arts council puts it at more like 65%.

So there are grey areas in assessing the grey area of private funding. The surge towards philanthropy as opposed to business support puts an emphasis on individual giving, but that is often difficult to assess: many thousands of pounds are left in the donation boxes in the foyers of every major museum, and the regions now are blessed with many major museums. Is that counted? All arts organisations around the country rely more and more on volunteers – the new archive centre in Sussex, The Keep, opening on November 19 has thousands of calico bags for its ancient maps made by Women’s Institute members for nothing– which is not assimilated into any of this.

“We observe that new public sector support to encourage philanthropic giving could exacerbate rather than ameliorate the situation with £18.5m (61%) of the first £30.5m of arts endowment funding under the Catalyst Programme going to London,” the writers say. It could, but another analyst could observe that it equally might not.

Pragmatic reports are not observation tolerant, and this observation betrays a bias which does its cause no favours. For it is as true now as it was in 1965 that there is an imbalance of funding in the regions compared with London, but it is to be expected. London is a one of perhaps half a dozen world cities and is a place where arts lovers come for the cultural offer. The report shows that while 14% of visitors to the US go to New York, 12% of those that go to France spend time in Paris and 10% of tourists in Germany go to Berlin, in the UK 48% of visitors spend time in London, such is the importance of the international offer in the capital compared with the regions. And London is becoming increasingly important worldwide as a cultural centre: Alistair Spalding of Sadler’s Wells says that his theatre has seen audiences for contemporary dance double there in ten years, and that New York and Paris have ceded their positions as the centre for world dance to London.

There is undoubtedly too little of attention paid to the regions, even within the arts community. In the recent trawl for a successor to Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre, a director who has never run a building and never worked much in the regions has been appointed. How interesting it would have been if someone nurtured in the regions with, nevertheless, and international reputation – Jonathan Church at Chichester, for instance, or Tom Morris at Bristol, neither of whom was interviewed.

The paper has a solution, in a new five year National Investment Programme to support the arts outside London with the emphasis away from the blessed south, south-east and east of England. It would be worth £120m drawn from the National Lottery.

In those terms, it’s simple. In real terms, it is extremely complicated, because of other elements such as local authority funding. The arts council, which is given credit in the report for positively trying to even things up but is castigated for not having followed up properly, is at present working on a complex series of partnerships with local authorities of different dimensions – county, city, town and borough – to keep money flowing to local and regional cultural operations. It is a process over-complicated by changes to local authority funding, political interference at local level and by the mercurial nature of private funding.