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Our arts organisations are in a dance of death

The deadline for Arts Council applications has just passed, and the funding outlook is looking bleaker than ever.

Fund guy: Alan Davey, chief executive of Arts Council England, in 2008. (Photo: Getty)
Fund guy: Alan Davey, chief executive of Arts Council England, in 2008. (Photo: Getty)

Arts organisations and museums all over the country will have been scrambling to get their grant applications in to the Arts Council by 12pm Tuesday. And they should be worried. The news in all of the culture pages in newspapers is bleak. Stories abound about local authority cuts and Arts Council cuts, and rightly so, because without investment the arts and cultural industries are at risk.

I could spend my time arguing about the numerous benefits these industries bring to the economy: how this is an industry that generates up to £8m an hour; the innumerable benefits engaging in the arts has on a person’s outlook on life; or for the way that tourists flock to the UK, not for the rain, but for visits to our museums, galleries, and theatres. But instead, I think it’s time for us to face the music and dance.

Government funding of the arts is being cut. Despite the Arts Council doing a stellar job of advocating and arguing the case for sustained investment in the arts, they are facing even more cuts to their grant in aid. And we may see what is further in store when the budget is announced on Wednesday.

And local authority cuts are also hitting home this year. Yes, some councils recognise the vital work that the arts and culture do, but the facts are that cumulative local government funding for the arts fell by more than 20% between 2009/10 and 2011/12. This is hugely disproportionate to the cuts that local government have even had to make during this period, and shows that arts and culture is being singled out. So what dances can we do to this terrible track?

Some members of the public have called for the Arts Council to back-fill the local authority cuts that are placing specific arts organisations under threat. Just look at the Brewhouse Theatre, where local MPs and those in the community all looked to the Arts Council, with hands held out, hoping for some emergency funds to save them.

But should the Arts Council shuffle vital (and limited) funding to these organisations to keep them standing? I would argue not. Surely the little money that we have should go to the strongest organisations, those that are sure to put on outstanding work and engage people with the arts in new and exciting ways? The strongest certainly does not mean the largest; there are, by percentage, many more small cultural organisations that are really delivering both artistically and sustainably.

The UK government suggests marching to the beat of the philanthropic drum. But there is no way that philanthropy can generate the kind of money that arts organisations are losing from local authority and Arts Council cuts.

One of the most dangerous pieces of rhetoric flying around Westminster at the moment is that philanthropy could replace state funding. It cannot, because state funding is risk money. Organisations use this money to make the work that other sectors would not fund. Look at Manchester International Festival. It is so exciting because the work you see there is completely unique – you wouldn’t see chances and risks like this being made anywhere else, especially not when business funding is involved.

Perhaps for some arts organisations, then, this is a dance to the death. Arts organisations are businesses, and businesses need to be sustainable. Those that aren’t will inevitably fold. It’s a Darwinian economy that we buy into, and inevitably only the strongest business plans will survive.

One of the things we are teaching at Goldsmiths is to have the contingency of folding in your organisation’s business plan.

If an arts organisation does have to fold, one of the outcomes should be that the artistic excellence goes on to nourish and support other organisations in the sector. For instance, artistic directors should be able to take the skills they have honed and refined elsewhere, perhaps shaking things up in another organisation. And for those in administration or in governance, they should be able to learn from the mistakes that they perhaps may have made in the past, and take that elsewhere, strengthening business plans in other organisations.

It is in this sense that collaboration is key, in the life of an arts organisation of course, but also in its death. The system has been set up to make organisations compete for funds, audiences and essentially survival. Maybe we can change the paradigm to one of collaboration and mutual support, or even symbiosis. The recent Plan B statement suggests a much more collaborative relationship with organisational supporters and audiences. This is clearly going in the right direction.

The more we work together, the more we can help each other out, driving towards a common goal in this sector – that of having a thriving arts and cultural scene, enjoyed and appreciated by all. To survive, we need to stop dancing solo, and grab a partner.

Gerald Lidstone is director of the Institute for Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship at Goldsmiths, University of London. HeThe Conversation receives funding from AHRC, Ford Foundation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.