What does the £446m announcement of Arts Council England (ACE) grants mean for museums and the visual arts? So far, the public outcry has focused on the performing arts and particularly on English National Opera, which lost its crucial subsidy—unless it leaves London and moves to Manchester.
Under the system for England, the government channels arts funding through ACE, with the latest round of grants covering three financial years, from April 2023 to April 2026. The £446m a year is up on the £407m handed out from 2018/19, but taking inflation into account it will represent a reduction in real terms. But what has really unleashed a storm of protest is the shifting of resources, with numerous winners and, inevitably, losers.
Strikingly, of the 990 recipient organisations, 276 (28%) have been allocated grants for the first time. This has obviously had a very damaging impact on established arts institutions that have had their grants cut. Furthermore, 127 organisations have been dropped entirely, which will probably force some of them to close. But unless there are opportunities for new organisations to arise and develop, then the arts scene would remain unduly static.
“Levelling up” strategy
The most fundamental change is the financial shift from London to the regions, a move initiated by ACE’s “Let’s Create” strategy, published in 2020. This was taken up earlier this year by the then culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, who issued explicit orders to the ACE chair Nicholas Serota on 18 February.
After pointing out that ACE’s annual spend in London is £21 per capita, compared with £6 outside, Dorries explained that she had successfully lobbied the Treasury for extra funding, for a “levelling up” strategy. “I am instructing the Arts Council to significantly increase investment outside of London,” she said.
For almost all museums and visual arts venues, it is simply impossible to leave London. They are rooted in their location, although they may lend to or otherwise support regional institutions. Unable to move, many London institutions have had their grants cut so that others in the regions can be funded. There has also been a shift from central London to outer London recipients.
Arguably, the culture secretary’s “instruction” to move funding from London to the regions broke the government’s long-standing commitment to an “arm’s length” arrangement over arts funding. But Nicholas Serota, a former director of the Tate (1988-2017) and now ACE chair (from 2017), does not see any major change. He insists that allocations for particular recipients were ACE decisions.
He told The Art Newspaper: “Government has always decided in broad terms how much money should be put into the arts and how it should be spent. There was never a ‘golden age’ with no government interference of any kind.” Others would beg to disagree. Chris Smith, a former culture secretary (1997-2001), wrote last year: “The [arm’s length] principle is, at heart, a very simple one: the Government should provide the framework of support—primarily financial, that enables arts organisations or museums to flourish, but it should then leave the individual organisations to get on with the business of deciding what they are going to do.”
The principle held when, in 1997, Smith, as secretary of state, is reported as having suggested that English National Opera should move from its base at London’s Coliseum to share premises with the Royal Opera House. The then ACE leadership did not oblige. “Arm’s length” is, however, a fragile concept.
Total grants for the 159 visual arts venue recipients will rise from £43.7m annually over the previous period (from 2018/19) to £47.9m a year, a 10% increase. That may sound like good news, but with inflation also running at around 10% in 2022 alone, it already means a reduction in real terms, which will worsen over the coming years.
Total grants for the 82 museum recipients will rise marginally, from £37.1m (from 2018/19) to £37.6m, an increase of just 1%. An ACE spokesperson argues that some organisations previously treated as “museums” have been recategorised, and extra money for them adds a further £6.5m, taking the sector rise from 1% to 21%. (It should be noted that 15 sponsored national museums in England are funded separately—by the government’s culture department. Many of these are in London, but have still received a grant uplift.)
Casting the net wider
We can also report that ACE has shifted some of its grants from traditional art museums to a broader range of institutions. New recipients include the National Football Museum in Manchester, and the Postal Museum and the Garden Museum, both in London.
Inflation remains a huge challenge, even for the winners. Grant applications needed to be submitted by last May, but inflation has soared since then, hitting 11% year on year in the most recent November figure. Serota says ACE will discuss with recipients “how much of their programme they will now be able to offer”. He adds: “I don’t underestimate the strain this will put them under.”
And with further government spending cuts announced by the chancellor Jeremy Hunt in his 17 November budget, could there be further pain on the horizon for the arts? Hunt said that Whitehall budgets would remain the same in cash terms for the next two financial years, but this, of course, represents a real-terms reduction.
When we asked ACE for comment, it declined to respond, referring us to the government’s culture department. A spokesperson for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport assured us there would be “financial certainty” for ACE recipients for the coming three years with last month’s announcement. November’s allocations, they added, “will not be reopened”.
Losers and Winners
Camden Art Centre, London £920,000 to £600,000
Institute of Contemporary Arts, London £862,000 to £678,000
Serpentine Galleries, London £1,194,000 to £708,000
Southbank Centre, London £18,360,000 to £16,828,000
University of Cambridge Museums £1,213,000 to £618,000
Arnolfini, Bristol £0 to £697,000
Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery £0 to £148,000
Bradford Museums and Galleries £0 to £382,000
Foundling Museum, London £0 to £150,000
Towner, Eastbourne £359,000 to £538,000