There is a parochial myth that outside London’s metropolitan centre exists a breed of Neanderthal Northerners who, clutching a Greggs pasty and standing in a bleak milieu worthy of a Shane Meadows film, have no desire to access the arts. This image, combined with the startling figure from last year that cultural spending amounted to £69 per head in London and just £4.50 per head elsewhere, illustrates the London-centric nature of UK arts funding. For this reason, there was a collective intake of breath this week as Arts Council England (ACE) announced the funding for 2015-2018. Surely, arts programmes across the regions cried, the budget discrepancies couldn’t get any worse? Surely the rest of the UK would get their fair share, rather than being lumped together as simply “Not-London”? Alas, it was not to be. The ACE reiterated once again that when it comes to culture, it is London vs The Rest of the UK, with the capital snatching 47 per cent of the total budget.
Elitism is an accusation bandied about the art world, from Saatchi to opera, but the label of exclusivity transcends galleries and genres with simple geography. The ACE have the arrogance to declare that London vs the rest of the UK is an equal match worth fighting, and one in which funds can be distributed equally between the two. The extensive nature of their report proves that despite their attempts to disguise the vicious nature of the cuts with a garish pink font, the ACE cannot claim ignorance about the existence of a 14:1 imbalance of London’s arts budget compared to the rest of England. The existence of both an “ACE National” Twitter account and an “ACE London” Twitter account is telling and leads to the question of why two accounts are even needed when “Arts Council England” is now synonymous with just London.
As councils across the UK ruthlessly scrap their arts budgets – such as Newcastle City Council halving their already pitiful culture grants – it’s the job of the ACE to represent not just London but all of England (as – spoiler alert! – their title would suggest). Far from meeting the challenge of helping failing regional arts companies, predictably and depressingly, they have continued to adopt their policy of cutting London budgets by a snail pace of 2 per cent and in doing so they maintain the London-centric status quo. The ACE’s budget accounts for just 0.5 per cent of government spending and while this should be higher, crucially, it should be distributed fairly. The current idea that art can be justified only if it provides revenue is toxic, but even more so if it that cannot be accessed by 86 per cent of the population who do not live within reach of an Oyster card. The bold scope of London’s cultural projects cannot be denied, yet their work does not have to come at the expense of projects outside the capital.
On the surface, the council’s decision to decrease London-based funding by £6.6m while increasing that to the rest of the UK by £9.5m surface appears to be a heroic, Robin Hood-esque action of taking from the rich to give to the poor. Unfortunately, while cuts have been made from cultural fat cats like the English National Opera, the Southbank Centre, and the Royal Shakespeare Company, increases in funding to the Manchester International Festival, the Northern Ballet, and Mima (Middlesbrough’s Modern Art Gallery) are still anomalies. It goes without saying that Whitehall is biased towards London, but coupled with the similar inclinations of the National Lottery and individual philanthropists – 90 per cent of their donations go straight into London-based projects – the picture gets even bleaker. The ACE drastically needs to reform their funding so that they can help struggling companies instead of the already successful.
Despite the headlines about their supposed “shake up” of arts funding, little change has been made. At a time when local authorities and the central government are both reluctant to provide grants for the sake of cultural prosperity, the ACE should be distributing their portfolio as evenly and fairly as possible. As it stands, it feels like we’re being presented with an ultimatum: move to London or you’re on your own.