The Guardian view on leveling up in the arts: a tricky balancing act | Editorial

Aafter a brief period of bafflement, accompanied by scrambled responses to the effect that “We are grateful, but …”, the shock waves burst over Arts Council England’s three-year funding program for the national portfolio organizations (NPOs) that it regards as the jewels in the nation’s cultural crown. With an increase of more than 12% in the total number of recipients, and a budget that is up from £341m to £446m a year, the picture looked rosier than many had feared, although the impact on London was as brutal as anticipated.

In the sound and fury over the losers, it is easy to lose sight of who the winners were, why they were chosen, and what the redistribution will mean for the cultural life of the country. Among them were 276 organizations not previously funded by Arts Council England, which acts as an arm’s length agent for the government. This redistribution rested on two principles. The first was that money needed to be moved away from the capital to level up the playing field in historically deprived communities and “priority places”.

The second was that for many people the word “culture” was not synonymous with visits to opera, ballet or theatre: they wanted arts that came to, and involved, them. Describing this vision in a 10-year strategy document Let’s Create, the arts council’s chair, Sir Nicholas Serota, invoked a 2016 installation to mark the centenary of the Somme: “crowds of volunteers in stations around the country, motionless amid the evening floods of commuters, bringing concourses to a halt as they burst into song”.

It’s one thing to bring concourses to a halt for a single event; it’s another to act this out over a three-year funding cycle. Consider the situation in Bristol, one of the UK’s largest cities, which is not a priority place but has plenty of social challenges. It will have the same number of NPOs as before, but with changes that could be regarded as paradigmatic.

For instance, in line with Arts Council England’s commitment to restocking the musical pool, in come two organizations providing music for young people: Awards for Young Musicians; and the National Children’s Orchestra. In keeping with its mission to better serve marginalized communities, other new additions include an artist-led Asian dance company and a literary agency specializing in writers from minority groups.

More bafflingly, out goes a well-regarded children’s theater company which is currently rehearsing the Christmas show for the city’s flagship theatre, the Bristol Old Vic. The Old Vic itself remains in the portfolio, but – like many other leading theaters – has suffered the real terms cut of standstill funding for the next three years.

The task of keeping culture alive in embattled times rests on a delicate balancing act: it needs to enrich lives and entertain, but also to contribute to the economy by creating jobs, attracting tourists and generating money for other businesses. Laudable though the new priorities may be in many ways, there is a danger that, in solving one problem, they will create others – the emasculation of institutions, the dispersal of creative communities – that will become irreparable, and not just in London.

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