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At the heart of English folk
London Youth Folk Ensemble

To fund or not to fund? Is that the question?

by Katy Spicer, Chief Executive of the English Folk Dance and Song Society

Katy SpicerWelcome to our new blog, an informal series of posts written by EFDSS staff, trustees, and guests about anything and everything that’s on their minds, and relates to folk, of course.As CEO of EFDSS I get to pull rank and write the first one!  So what am I bursting to talk about?  Oh goodness, where to start – Ebola, economic crisis, war in Syria, elections? No, I wish to revisit the Select Committee’s findings on the balance of Arts Council England’s funding of arts organisations in London and the regions.

In my 30 or so years in arts management (I started very young), I have worked in a variety of organisations – repertory theatres, dance and theatre touring companies, umbrella and development agencies and yes, even Arts Council England (ACE) itself.  I have also worked in London and in the regions.   There are a great number of tensions when it comes to the state funding of the arts; along with geography comes art forms and within art forms comes genre, and along with this comes work for specific groups and age ranges, not to mention the political minefield that is diversity!  There is, and always has been, a pecking order.

But is all this focus on ACE and how it does or doesn’t distribute its Treasury and Lottery grants between London and the regions a bit of a smoke screen?  Is the London V the regions debate not just diverting attention from the real issues – a systematic reduction in government spending on the arts?

In doing a bit of internet surfing to see what the Zeitgeist was saying about all this I came across an essay by John Holden, former Head of Culture at Demos, written in c2008 (no date on the paper – tut, tut), for Arts and Business.  He expressed my concerns most eloquently:

"But what about geography? …..  The danger when looking at this question is to fall into the trap of turning it into a debate about taking money away from London in order to spread it more widely.  This misses the point.  London, for all its amour-propre, is and will remain a world-class cultural centre.  It will continue to attract artists, writers, and performers from all over the world and audience demand will continue to flourish.  The point about equity is not to redistribute the contents of a limited purse so as to make life worse in London. …. The vigour of the regions is helped, not hindered, by a successful metropolis.  Rather, equity is about raising expectations, and improving infrastructure, to ensure that everyone, wherever they live, can enjoy culture in its many forms."[1]

The Select Committee appears to put a great deal of store in the report from Peter Stark, Christopher Gordon and David Powell entitled “Rebalancing our Cultural Capital “,  published last autumn[2].  While I have great respect for these highly experience arts professionals I feel they completely overlooked some key factors in their report, which as the title suggests, calls for more use of ACE Treasury and Lottery funds for the regions and less for London. 

Firstly, there is no recognition of the amount of work London based companies deliver around England.  In my working life I have worked with London based companies that deliver may be only 5-10% of their annual creative and educational output in London, the remainder being delivered across the country.   Over the past 18 months we, at EFDSS, have delivered 60% of our annual activities out of London – performance, professional training and educational projects. 

Secondly, of the grants we have received from Lottery funds since 2012 (nearly £1million via the Heritage Lottery Fund and ACE), 55% of these funds were spent on projects and activities outside of London, the remainder chiefly supporting the development of Cecil Sharp House into a step-free building.  We are not unique in this proportion of activity and funding to work outside of our home region.

And don’t get me started on the arguments about the imbalance between the geographic areas of high spend on lottery tickets and the number of lottery funded projects in these areas.  Let’s stop pretending that we buy lottery tickets to help good causes – we buy lottery tickets to become millionaires and only when we don’t win so much as a tenner can we console ourselves that our money went to a good cause (after the Treasury has taken its share, of course).

The old saying “lies, damn lies and statistics” comes to mind.  The figures can tell very different stories if looked at in very different ways. Over 50% of ACE grants to its London based National Portfolio Organisations goes to national organisations.  Remove this figure and the picture for the rest of the London arts scene is very different.  Look at the facilities in the outer London boroughs; there are currently nine theatre/arts centre venues funded by ACE in these 20 boroughs (total grants £3.5m, population c5.5million) and of those the Orange Tree in Richmond loses its ACE funding from April.  At 70p per head, that does not look like over-funding.

Of course, this is not the full picture, and no doubt someone will take my figures and present a different story again.  But in my humble opinion this focus on the geographical spread of ACE grants hides the bigger issue – diminishing government support to the arts and particularly from local government. 

The Select Committee acknowledge this in their report and looks to ACE to broker partnerships between local authorities, local businesses and other institutions.  It also challenges ACE to take “a far more robust stance” in its dealings with local authorities.  Poor beleaguered ACE!  After three years of cut backs, trying to make itself sylph-like, does it have the resources to undertake such work?

To re-quote John Holden “equity is about raising expectations, and improving infrastructure, to ensure that everyone, wherever they live, can enjoy culture in its many forms.”  Let us not allow ourselves to be divided and conquered; let us not be baffled by a smoke-screen of statistics that is masking the real issue –  a disregard for the value of the arts and so ever-decreasing support from national and  local government.  Remember there is an election around the corner and there is everything to play for.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of EFDSS.


[1] John Holden, “Funding Decentralisation in the UK Cultural: How have done so far?” Arts and Business, c 2008

[2]Peter Stark, Christopher Gordon and David Powell entitled “Rebalancing our Cultural Capital “, October 2013


National Youth Folk Ensemble

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