Let’s Create ... a new strategy for Arts Council England

Arts Council England has just published its new 10-year vision. So why is that relevant to you if you don’t get funding, or if you’re in one of the other nations of the UK? Our Chief Executive Barbara Eifler explains…

Making Music is not funded on a regular basis by Arts Council England (ACE), though we are occasionally successful in applying for project grants. Most Making Music members also receive no funding, except the odd project, from Arts Council England. And obviously if you are in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, you have your own Arts Councils (to not be funded by!). So why do I think that the long-awaited publication of this strategy for the decade 2020-2030 is important for us all to read and take note of?

For better or for worse, ACE is the largest single public funder of arts and culture in the UK (their remit is all art forms plus museums and libraries). Most of their funding comes from central government, the rest from the National Lottery. So we’re all paying for this as taxpayers – what they get up to, therefore, is relevant to us all: it may mean more or fewer leisure-time or professional musicians in future, better or worse infrastructure for us to work in (think rehearsal spaces and venues), higher or lower value placed on the kind of musical activity rooted in the community which we are passionate about. And that will have repercussions not just in England, but in the other nations, too, despite the devolved status, as we share musicians, repertoire, opportunities, and more.

In this document, unlike any previous ones I’ve read, leisure-time music and hobby musicians exist! 

ACE is also in close contact and frequently in partnership with the UK government, with the other arts councils, with local authorities, and many others. They’re a great influencer, therefore, and that makes it worth reading what they think they should be influencing for and about. Their size and connections mean they can set the tone for and frame the debate in arts and culture, and that will affect us all, in whichever way we are connected to that world.

You can read the full strategy on the ACE website (it is worth it!). There are a few headline-worthy points I would like to share with you.

Recognition for hobby musicians

The short version is that I’m loving it. In this document, unlike any previous ones I’ve read, leisure-time music and hobby musicians exist! We are valued! We will be supported! (Though not necessarily with cash.) All this constitutes a big change, and to my mind, in the right direction.

ACE have been listening not just to the usual suspects, but to a cross-section of everyone. And so they heard what people get up to, culturally speaking, and what they value, and what the barriers are to becoming creative themselves or enjoying culture which is the result of someone else’s creative process. The result is a radically different vision for ACE, written in a new language.

‘…excellence can be found in village halls and concert halls, and in both the process of participation and the work that is produced.’ We couldn’t agree more.

Out go ‘arts’, in comes ‘culture,’ recognising that for many people ‘arts’ means either ‘high arts’ or visual arts only, whereas our cultural lives – and ACE’s remit - embrace so much more than that.

Out go ‘artists’ and in come ‘creative practitioners.’ Would you, as a hobby musician, call yourself an artist? I wouldn’t. And whilst recognising that creative practitioner doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, on reflection I would probably feel comfortable counting myself as one of them. That makes me feel that my cultural activity, however limited, is now part of ACE’s remit; I feel included in the way I’ve never felt included before.

These terms are crucial for ACE to describe the double focus of their vision which is on encouraging, developing and supporting the creativity of each of us, on the one hand, and on ensuring that we all, regardless of our geographical location, educational attainments or socio-economic background, have access to outstanding cultural experiences.

Music-making communities

There is much talk in this document of communities, and there’s one word which has brought some professional arts organisations to the barricades: relevant. ACE’s steer is gentle, and wide, in my view: that ‘in future, [they] will judge organisations for the way in which they reflect and build a relationship with their communities, as well as for the quality and ambition of their work,’ and that they want the organisations they support ‘to mean more, to more people; to strengthen their relevance to the communities.’ But this has been (wilfully?) taken by some to mean that they are being asked to ‘dumb down’ their artistic quality in order to please their audience. A bit of an insult, I feel, to us audiences: are they implying we’ll only turn out in droves for rubbish? Or that they alone can spot genius, even if the rest of us can’t? Who rated Mozart over Salieri, Meyerbeer over Berlioz, in their day, and how could contemporary professionals or audiences fail to recognise the genius of Van Gogh or Kafka….?

But what it does mean – and this is another bit of their language which has met with opposition in some quarters – is that, in their words, ‘…excellence can be found in village halls and concert halls, and in both the process of participation and the work that is produced.’ We couldn’t agree more.

... the vision and ambition are surely to be applauded from where we are sitting in the leisure-time music sector.

Some other points to note

  • Is it goodbye to business as usual? ‘By 2030 we will be investing in organisations and people that differ, in many cases, from those that we support today.’ Wow, brave, go for it, ACE.
  • The strategy is a vision and will result, over the decade it covers, in several delivery plans with more detail, which can be adapted to changing situations (e.g. governments).
  • The vision sets out three Outcomes and four Investment Principles, and I’d just like to tell you that ‘the first Outcome focuses on amateur and voluntary creative activity, including by children and young people.’ That’s you, and what you do. Give a loud cheer.
  • The third Outcome is about the professional cultural sector, and the second one ‘brings the first and third Outcomes together by considering how the professional and voluntary sectors can work with each other to help shape stronger cultural provision in villages, towns and cities.’ This is also about you, and the communities you sit in. Cheer again.
  • And finally, ACE describes itself as ‘the national development agency for creativity and culture’. They will fulfil that role in three ways:
    1. By investing the funds they are given in creative practitioners and cultural organisations
    2. By building more partnerships, including with organisations outside the cultural sector
    3. Through advocacy – ‘through making the case more clearly, and to more people, for the benefits that creativity and culture bring’. And to support that case, they will continue to invest in research and useful data collection.

In conclusion: what’s not to like? But implementation will not be easy – there will be resistance, as there is so often, to change. But the vision and ambition are surely to be applauded from where we are sitting in the leisure-time music sector.

Read the full ACE strategy