Arts funding in England is a skinny gruel that organisations are compelled to beg for – The Guardian

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Arts funding in England is a thin gruel that organisations are forced to beg for

There’s no new money in the government’s levelling up of the arts wheeze: just a shifting of neglect from one place to another

Bolsover Lantern Parade

Perched high over the Vale of Scarsdale, dominated by a magnificent 17th-century castle, the Derbyshire town of Bolsover is proudly kept; so too are the former mining villages that surround it. But the neatness and prettiness on a bright late-August day occlude the fact that the area has suffered since the pits closed. Opportunities are few, unemployment high. Buses are infrequent and expensive. A worrying amount of violent and sexual crime is reported to the local police. Much of what once gave these places their identity has drifted away. In the nearby village of Pinxton, a mural has just been unveiled on the gable end of the village hall. “It is,” says Paul Steele, who worked with the parish council to commission it, “about everything Pinxton has lost” – its railway station, its mine, its porcelain factory. This is classic “red wall” territory: Dennis Skinner lost his seat here to the Conservatives at the 2019 general election.

Steele is the managing director of Junction Arts, the local community arts organisation. “Bolsover has essentially no cultural infrastructure,” he tells me. No theatre, no music venue, no further education. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t creativity. Of course there is. Since 1994, Junction Arts has worked with local people to create the annual Bolsover Lantern Parade. Wonderfully inventive lanterns – in the shape of jellyfish, dinosaurs, guinea pigs, yellow submarines, you name it – are handmade by Bolsover families for a huge procession. It’s a joyful spectacle that thousands come to see.

This year could be a bonanza for Junction Arts. At the moment it receives just over £100,000 a year from Arts Council England (ACE). But this year, Bolsover was identified as a “priority place” – one of 54 areas that have suffered from underinvestment to be given precedence by ACE in its next three-year funding round. (One recent analysis suggested that in the east Midlands, annual arts subsidy was £5.01 a head, as opposed to £24 a head in London.) So Steele has applied for a big uplift. If he gets it, Junction Arts plans to create a summer children’s festival for nearby Chesterfield, where its office is based – lots of free creative activities for young people. You’d have to be particularly hard of heart not to hope they get it. “We felt it was now or never,” he says.

But there’s a catch. Steele tells me he’s never applied for an uplift before: “We feel we’re all part of one big arts sector, and we don’t want to take from others”. He knows that politically it is Junction Arts’ moment, and it would be absurd not to grasp the opportunity when money’s being shovelled into places like Bolsover, Sandwell and Stoke-on-Trent in the name of levelling up. But arts funding, under the current government, is a zero-sum game. There’s no new money, beyond a tiny, 2% rise in the ACE budget. If Junction Arts gets more funding, someone else will get less. If the Tories really wanted to “level up” funding for the arts they would increase provision in Bolsover without knocking someone else back. What’s actually going on here is not levelling up. It is punching down.

A new mural in Pinxton, Derbyshire

By 2025-26, on the instructions of the current culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, £24m a year is to be taken out of the Arts Council budget in London to be redistributed to other parts of England. It’s a prospect that might make you shrug with indifference, or even quietly cheer, until you consider how exactly that might be done. Let’s be charitable and call it £16m, since part of the plan is that £8m-worth of London organisations will have moved out of the capital by 2025 as part of a “transfer scheme”. (Dorries wanted forcible removals of institutions; she was argued down to this voluntary compromise.)

Redistribution sounds great, in theory. Why not wrest cash from the grasping metropolis? The problem is, redistribution doesn’t really work as an idea in the English arts system, where everyone is struggling, and the sums of money involved are risibly small. The current ACE grant-in-aid budget is £341m a year, which is in real terms somewhere between 30% and 50% of its value in 2010. It is this £341m that keeps the heart of the arts beating in England – everything from the Royal Shakespeare Company to the Manchester international festival to the Royal Northern Sinfonia .

Put it this way. To get to your £16m target, you could defund the National Theatre, which currently receives £17m grant-in-aid from ACE. Or the Southbank Centre, which gets £18.4m – no more Meltdown festival, farewell Hayward Gallery, up yours the aspirations of the Festival of Britain. Or you could get rid of English National Opera (£12.4m) plus a couple of symphony orchestras (£2m each), since London’s almost certainly got enough opera and orchestral music, and it wouldn’t really matter about hundreds of brilliant musicians and singers and technicians losing their livelihoods. Right?

Or let’s look at it another way. Since most of London’s arts funding goes to a handful of high-profile national organisations – the sort of places Oliver Dowden called “the crown jewels” when he was culture secretary – you could leave those largely alone and concentrate on some smaller organisations. You could reach £16m, for example, by defunding all of the following: the London Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra, the ICA, Camden Arts Centre, Battersea Arts Centre, the Donmar Warehouse, the Chisenhale Gallery, Poems on the Underground, the Lyric Hammersmith, Wigmore Hall, the Young Vic, the Roundhouse, the Almeida, the Serpentine and the Soho theatre.

It’s worth bearing in mind that the proportionately small amounts some of these places get does not mean that they could survive without a backbone of public funding. That spine of certainty is what allows them to leverage donations and sponsorship and funding from charitable trusts; it is what allows them to take creative risks. Given the energy crisis, the failure of railway franchises, and the various huge state interventions made necessary by the pandemic, it seems otiose to point out that you can’t just abandon huge chunks of life to the raw winds of the market, though it is amazing how often this needs to be argued in relation to the arts.

Do you remember “eat out to help out” – Rishi Sunak’s wheeze (let’s not dignify it with the word policy) that subsidised restaurant meals during the pandemic? It cost £849m for one month – that’s one single month of populist, back-of-the-envelope, unscrutinised public spending. What a grotesque contrast to the painful, toiled-over, self-justifying applications that arts organisations have to turn in before they get their bowl of thin gruel, in the form of ebbing funds that they’ve taught themselves never to complain about in case it makes them look like whingeing luvvies.

The contrast – £341m a year for an entire country’s arts infrastructure compared with £849m for a month of pub lunches that may, or may not, have had an impact on the health of the hospitality sector, but certainly affected rising Covid cases and pressure on the NHS – might make you laugh. But only if you sometimes find yourself laughing out of fury and disbelief.

The hideous funding decisions forced on ACE are going to be taken in the coming weeks. The traumas of the pandemic mean more organisations than ever have applied for money – 1,730, requesting £2bn. When the decisions are announced, probably in October, it won’t just be ignorable metropolitan lefties who’ll be furious, it will be Tory donors and patrons of organisations in the capital. It’s going to get ugly, and fast.

  • Charlotte Higgins is the Guardian’s chief culture writer