Melanie Precious, CEO & Creative Director. Photo: Roswitha Chesher
I’ve been following the reactions to the Nicholas Hytner article ‘The Arts in Britain are teetering on the brink. Here is my plan to save them’ with a combination of frustration and despair. Not because I agree or even disagree with this plan (or any of the alternatives circulating on social media), but rather because I fear that we are completely and utterly missing the point and in doing so we may also be missing a crucial moment to come together collectively to bring about essential change.
What Hytner has done, regardless of whether you agree with the plan he set out or not, is put the dire funding context within which we are all trying desperately to work, in bold print in a national newspaper. He openly called upon Labour, who with an election coming up have skin in the game, to listen. However, in its publication, the article has ripped the scab off a very old wound and (understandably) caused a great many backs to go up. As a result, rather than seizing the opportunity to create a chorus demanding more and better investment, we are busy twittering things like “this is why his plan is wrong” alongside decidedly less articulate and frankly vitriolic commentary. Our indignance is getting the better of us and we are seemingly forgetting that his proposal is not the executive summary of a government white paper but rather an opinion piece: by someone whose influence could be used, if we were clever, as a key to making crucial conversations happen at an immensely crucial time, rather than as a stick with which to beat him. Because while we are busy throwing insults at each other what do you think the government or even Arts Council England are doing?
In fact, it serves them well for us to be expending our energy publicly arguing for and against Hytner’s two-tier system because then we distract from the real issue here: that the sector is indeed on the brink. It’s about to collapse. It is not being funded properly and the system for distributing what money there is, is fundamentally flawed.
As CEO and Creative Director of an organisation trying to make great art alongside a community of professional and non-professional artists and within a variety of non-theatrical spaces, I am, like so many others doing work like this, sick of continuously having to make the case for why our work is just as valuable as anything happening on our country’s main stages. But what I also (painfully) know is that, despite the quality of the work and the impact Greenwich Dance brings about (relating not just to art appreciation and growth of audiences but placemaking, wellbeing, social cohesion and talent development) our funding was cut by our local authority by 100% in this financial year – a decision that will affect us for the next four. We were unsuccessful at NPO (and without the means that ENO had to dispute this) and we have not had a single ACE Projects application successful since their Let’s Create strategy was introduced. Existing outside of the ‘all or nothing’ framework of the NPO system is becoming nigh on impossible and organisations like us are rapidly disappearing as are the artists they are there to support. Having received three successful rounds of Cultural Recovery Funding I have to admit that this observation of Hytner’s, “I despair at the bizarre decision to invest heavily in a fund to help the arts outlive Covid, only to starve them of the support they need to return to health.” is absolutely bang on.
So the current ‘one-tier’ system as it stands is just not working. Can we agree that Hytner is right about that? And I believe we have to give credit where it’s due as Hytner has at least proposed a suggestion, a starting point. But to move this forward we need to stop our infighting at once and act.
Let’s put a Working Group together. Hytner should be part of it but only as one voice – there should be many more representing other facets of the sector with differing experiences and perspectives. And then let’s dissect this plan as in examining why it isn’t fit for purpose we can, far more importantly, find out what is. Because our focus needs to shift, and sharply, away from proving why one person is wrong to working out what it is that’s right. Or at least better. I guess we have to face up to the fact that no one can ever please everyone.
Some rules to be part of this Working Group might be needed: egos must be left at the door, contributors must give space to ideas other than their own and be willing to have their minds changed. And everyone needs to be working towards the same end goal: to reinvent the funding system so that it can support the full arts ecology – one where artists at every stage of their careers are supported, productions at every scale are made, organisations and freelancers are supported to work collaboratively and people, regardless of whether you refer to them as communities or audiences, are supported to access great art.
We also need to consider how we ensure that the people sitting at the powerful end of it are supportive of this vision for an interconnected arts ecology. Right now I don’t know if that’s the case. ACE are certainly more skilled at distributing grants than the government are, but ACE also seem to have confused itself (and us) with the semantics of Let’s Create, a web of intertwining outcomes, elements, and investment principles with the magic combination of these seeming to be elusive for many. Within this current ‘one tier’ system, an organisation like ours has no confidence that our community centre tour isn’t being compared to Russell Maliphant’s large-scale one and regardless of how loudly we keep saying that both are valuable how do they make the choice between an apple and an orange?
Certainly, a bigger pot of funding is needed and so one crucial element will be getting people into this Working Group who could think through alternative ideas to our current reliance on people buying their weekly lottery tickets. A centrally-managed corporate Cultural Sponsorship package which encourages big business to invest some of their profits into the country’s cultural infrastructure could be one way.
But for goodness sake don’t procrastinate because many organisations and artists, under the current suffocating system, might not be able to hold on in these conditions for very much longer.
It will be an immense waste of resources if we continue to let organisations close. It costs taxpayers money to close an organisation down. It loses jobs, it lets down communities of artists, audiences and participants and we instantly lose valuable stakeholder relationships and local cultural intelligence which takes years to build. We also know that it costs a great deal to re-form organisations further down the line when it becomes acutely apparent that gaps in the cultural fabric have started to appear. A far better and more economical approach would be to start making better use of the infrastructure and workforce we already have.
So we need now to be strategic about this.
For a little window of time next year, the power dynamic will shift and the main political parties will be looking to us, the people, for their votes. So we have influence. If Labour come into power they will need solutions not problems. Let’s have a solution ready.
We have to make sure that whoever comes into power next year wastes absolutely no time in saving the arts from the brink upon which we are indeed teetering.
Melanie Precious, CEO & Creative Director