On 4 November, Arts Council England announced the almost 1,000 cultural organisations in its latest portfolio. The list made headlines. “The Arts Council has put ideology over the success of British culture,” ran one in the Telegraph. The Guardian noted that the portfolio saw “arts funding diverted away from London”, which would result in the relocation of English National Opera – leading the Spectator to bemoan “the war on opera”.
It’s true that the portfolio marks a significant shift in government funding for arts and culture. As a result of this pivot, the north is now finally level with London in the number of National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) funded by the Arts Council, and the regions are growing in capacity. The new portfolio commits 21.8 per cent more investment outside of London from 2023-26, including £43.5m devoted to targeting hard-to-reach communities.
But this merely attempts to correct a profound imbalance in the funding of culture across England in recent years. For decades more money has gone into the centre than the regions, and smaller local organisations have fought to compete with the big players in the capital city. Yet most culture is not consumed in the capital. The pandemic has accelerated hyper-local interactions with culture, and there is a demand in audiences to engage with and participate in culture closer to home.
As a result of this reorientation, the biggest museum NPO in the country is now Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums – which is based in Newcastle, not London. Significantly, the new portfolio also rewards organisations open to change, with special funding to support 24 NPOs currently based in London who have chosen to relocate to the regions to develop their work.
And yet, there has been “shock and dismay” expressed by those who live and work in London – with claims that the new portfolio will create challenges for the already highly successful sector players like the Royal Opera House, National Theatre and Donmar Warehouse, and particularly those at the English National Opera, who face the uncertainty of a move out of London. This hand-wringing ignores the fact that more than a third of the overall funding still goes towards London, and that London remains the beneficiary of the biggest total Arts Council England investment: £152m over three years. It also raises important questions about NPO funding as a springboard not a crutch, and the aspirations of large cultural organisations to operate independently of sustained government support, as well as how we incentivise them to diversify their offer and access new audiences.
This announcement is especially important in terms of our economy. As the Arts and Humanities Research Council has pointed out, the financial output of UK creative industries was almost four times that of other major sectors pre-Covid, and they were contributing more in terms of gross value added to the economy than life sciences, automotive, aerospace and oil and gas combined. In a period of general decline, the arts and culture remain key areas of growth. Any neglect of the north impacts on the success of the south, not only culturally but in all areas. This is the whole point of the levelling-up agenda: fairer is better for everyone.
To recover, we must address the long-term underinvestment in culture outside the capital. This NPO portfolio helps the whole sector rebuild its sustainability and resilience through investment in both the regions and the centre. What some media termed “devastating” is actually a rare piece of good news that speaks more broadly to the need for a fundamental change in how arts funding is dispersed nationally.
As is often the case with debates that are reduced to north vs south, funding decisions for arts and culture cannot be boiled down to a simple Us vs Them. With limited budgets and demand for funding – and the number of NPO applications – at an all-time high, Arts Council England and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have found themselves in an unenviable position. But if you truly want to make change, you have to put your money where your mouth is.
Culture connects us like nothing else and the pandemic has reminded us that place and participation matters now more than ever. In order to create new culture, we must invest in the capital, but also in every region of the country – from the coast to the countryside. Art is for everyone. It’s about time the distribution of cash reflected that.
Katy Shaw is professor of contemporary writings and director of cultural partnerships at Northumbria University.