Like a small political bureau, Arts Council England chief executive Darren Henley, its chief of communications, Mags Patten, and its president Sir Nicholas Serota sat shoulder to shoulder at a desk in the organization’s office. in Manchester on Friday morning for a live press streaming conference. They were there to announce their spending plans for 2023-2026. The format of the ad, which had been delayed by the kerfuffles in Westminster, suited the hosts. Questions could only be asked via email, so it was difficult to extract any useful information, even when it emerged that the English National Opera, one of the four great performing arts organizations in England, was losing its 12.6 million. pounds a year of funding in exchange for support to move out of London, probably to Manchester. (There was no mention of the cuts to the other three.)

The politbureau would not have felt evil and would not have spoken of evil. It would not say which of the 1,700 organizations that applied for funding had been turned down, nor which previous National Portfolio Organizations (NPOs have guaranteed funding for three years) were cut. All we need to do right now is a spreadsheet listing 990 organizations and what they will get. But there is no doubt that it represents a significant change in the way that British museums, theaters, orchestras, libraries and other cultural organizations will be treated by ACE. The question is whether this is an idea by the ACE or the government.

In 2020 ACE launched a new ten-year political declaration, “Let’s Create”, full of irrefutable sentiments about making culture available to all and how everyone should discover their creativity: “Whatever creativity means to you”. The policy, however, was swamped by the Covid crisis and although ACE saved the day by extracting more than £ 1 billion from the government for a Cultural Recovery Fund, the spending decisions involved appeared to support the existing order and existing institutions.

In February 2022, a new Secretary of State for Culture, Nadine Dorries, presided over the definition of the budget for ACE for 2023-2026. It was a £ 43.5m increase, but it came with tight constraints. As Sir Nicholas Serota said on Friday, the government “has ordered us to withdraw money from London”. ACE’s ‘Lets Create’ has been co-opted from the government’s ‘Leveling-Up’ agenda and, as a result, at least £ 24m per year will be reallocated from London. ACE may claim that individual decisions are its own, but the principle of free competition seems dead and buried.

Among those lucky enough to receive or withhold funding are around 187 museums and visual arts organizations, the latter difficult to pin down. The transfer of funds from London can be seen when the Serpentine Gallery, Camden Arts Center, Institute of Contemporary Arts and Museum of London receive reduced funding and the Barbican Arts Center, which has a major gallery, has been cut altogether . On the other hand, the Garden Museum, Foundling Museum, Gunnersbury Museum and Mimosa House are newcomers, with the move to transfer money to London boroughs such as Hounslow, Croydon and Deptford.

Museums and visual arts organizations will receive new funding in Derby, Slough, Bedford, Bolsover, Blackburn, Middlesbrough, Jarrow, Torridge, Dover, Hastings, Kirklees, Oldham, St Albans, New Forest, Erith and Rossendale, toponyms that don’t speak of metropolitan elite. ACE appears to be showing a populist touch by addressing London’s Postal Museum, North Yorkshire Moore Railway, and Manchester’s Football Museum. Not to mention the Blackpool illuminations.

While Nicholas Serota told us government instructions forced ACE to “make some hateful choices,” why, for example, has the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge apparently cut its funding in half? – Chief Executive Darren Henley says the results “reflect more England”. Geographically, this could very well be the case, and London still receives a third of all funding. It appears that the Arts Council is shifting from the classical view of what constitutes the arts – and indeed excellence – as its first president, Maynard Keynes, would acknowledge, to a less top-down, community-framed model. .

It will take some time to properly process the funding spreadsheet, but what is truly troubling is not the headline capturing winners and losers, but the large number of organizations that have not had any funding increases. At least one hundred museums and visual arts organizations have remained dormant. Under current economic conditions, standing still means a ten percent cut. Few, if any, arts organizations have recovered from the public effect of the Covid crisis, local government funding is on the verge of collapse and there are new financial challenges in terms of the energy crisis and a recession that is at least partly produced by the government. “Let’s Create” is a well-intentioned policy. But, when it comes to the arts in England, leveling up feels a lot like leveling down.

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