Arts Council England Public Body Review

Letter to Dame Mary Archer

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Dame Mary Archer
c/o Department for Culture, Media and Sport
100 Parliament Street

May 2024

Dear Dame Mary

We note that the current Public Body Review for Arts Council England (ACE) is a critical moment to review whether ACE, in the words of its Terms of Reference, is ‘up to date and remains relevant’ and whether its ‘delivery model is appropriate to deliver effective outcomes for the public’.

The Terms of Reference get to the heart of the review by aiming to explore ‘whether ACE ensures there is high-quality, excellent, representative culture and creative practice across the whole country, reaching a broad public’.

We believe that ACE’s 10-year strategy (2020-30), Let’s Create, reflects these principles and sets out a clear roadmap for achieving this ambition. The strategy was established by wide consultation across the sector, with stakeholders and members of that ‘broad public’ and embodies our belief that everyone – not just the privileged few - should have access to excellent arts and cultural activity.

However, there has been a concerted effort by some in recent months to steer the public debate and conflate issues, encouraging an unhelpful media-driven impression of ‘a growing revolt’ against Arts Council England. We are concerned that those who shout the loudest and have the ears of the powerful are able to dominate at the expense of a range of voices and a reasonable consideration of the issues.

Let’s Create is not without flaws, and we should explore how improvements can be made in its delivery. However, it has succeeded on a number of levels including finally moving the debate forward by refusing to fall into the trap of creating false and obstructive divisions between ‘quality’ or ‘excellence’ and ‘representation’. There seems to be an effort to revisit these divisions and reframe the Public Body Review as instead a review, and hoped for revision, of the Let’s Create strategy.

We certainly hold fast to the principle of excellence, which is at the core of funded work created by artists and organisations across the country. But excellence means different things in different contexts and must shine through in all aspects of what we do, from how we work with communities, to how we run our organisations.

We cannot allow a few voices to influence a swing back to an interpretation of excellence that narrows the opportunity for the ‘broad public’ to experience culture and creativity. We should resist an attempt to create divisions, playing into the prejudices and unfounded fears of some commentators who seem to believe that ACE is ‘determined to shift public subsidy on to supporting amateurs and community projects.’
We must aim to have a higher aspiration than simply trying to protect our own cherished corners of public subsidy and in the words of Let’s Create, ‘we want everyone to have more opportunities’ both ‘to be creative, and to experience high-quality culture’.

Of course there is plenty of scope for rational criticism of ACE. We certainly welcome the focus on how ACE’s ‘processes – particularly relating to funding…and decision-making’ can be improved to ensure they are ‘effective, proportionate and robust’.

Whilst aware of the need to collect data and demonstrate our impact and value, we would welcome a reduction in the demands placed on organisations and artists, with more streamlined, equitable and transparent processes. We would propose that ACE conduct a “from first principles” review of all its funding processes placing simplification for applicants at the heart of that review.

We hope there will finally be an acceptance that the application portal, Grantium, is not fit for purpose, and that investment is made as needed for ACE to properly transform their systems and replace Grantium.

We believe improvements in these areas would enable the sector to better invest its time and resources in delivering ‘high-quality, excellent, representative culture and creative practice across the whole country, reaching a broad public’.

Let’s Create is underpinned by clear principles which we endorse, including a belief that ‘everyone, everywhere should benefit from public investment in creativity and culture, given their power to fulfil us, and to transform the communities in which we live and work.’

We can only do this by having a multiplicity of approaches, and understanding the needs and perspectives of different audiences and different communities across the country. We hope likewise that the Public Body Review will listen to and respect a multiplicity of voices from the sector and beyond.
Responses collated by Future Arts Centres