March 30, 2011 7:20 pm

Some puzzling decisions but a surprisingly bloodless affair

Rarely has bad news been so calmly received. The unveiling of Arts Council England’s widely trailed funding cuts on Wednesday, in which more than 200 bodies lost their grants entirely, was a surprisingly bloodless affair.

Dame Liz Forgan, who chairs the council, had promised a “clean, open and transparent” process, and reaction from most of the country’s leading institutions has been broadly sympathetic to the council’s onerous task of implementing a 14.9 per cent cut to its regularly-funded bodies.

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It was very different in the early 1980s, the last time the arts had to deal with such measures. Then, the Arts Council reacted to the cuts of the Thatcher government with annual snips of its clients’ budgets, inflicting equal misery across the board.

The salami-slicing effect slowly strangled the life out of many institutions. Leading arts bodies such as the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company kept returning cap in hand, to ask for more cash. Quality suffered, audiences dwindled.

Deliberations at the council, in the meantime, remained opaque. Its regularly-funded bodies seemed to be part of a closed shop. There was no guidance offered on how to break into the hallowed circle. Resentment brewed as the money dried up.

Thanks to the boost provided by Lottery funding in the mid-1990s, the council was gradually able to stabilise a creaking system. More than £25m was earmarked just to restore the country’s regional theatres.

Level government funding, longer-term planning and rising private support of the arts over the past decade have helped bring greater stability.

Wednesday’s funding announcement, under the guise of a new national portfolio, was the climax of the council’s response to the withering criticism it received in its 2008 grant allocation, which contained mystifying, unpopular and unexplained decisions.

Dame Liz said she wanted to allow “fresh air” into the process: all arts bodies were invited to apply for grants, and the council would be clear on the criteria by which it decided their fate.

It would also become more selective in its grant allocation, funding fewer bodies rather than inflicting small and equal cuts on a larger number.

That is not to say there are no puzzling decisions. London’s Almeida Theatre, a venue that consistently mounts fine productions, will have been surprised to find its grant cut by 39 per cent. There was no lack of artistic excellence here, but perhaps a feeling that the fashionable theatre was strongly placed to increase its private sponsorship.

The Arcola Theatre, in Hackney, a London borough of more diverse fortunes, has by contrast received an 82 per cent increase in its funding.

Other decisions have been made in the name of balance across the regions, and art forms. As Dame Liz said, these were not necessarily about fairness but “about the right of everyone in the country to have the arts within their reach”.

The issue of geography weighs heavily in the latest distribution of funds. The council has put aside £80m of extra Lottery money to support touring work, and a further £10m for educational initiatives.

Meanwhile eight of the “big nine” of the country’s leading organisations have each suffered cuts of 15 per cent. It is a sum that most of them have already signalled is manageable, as they redouble their efforts to tap into the gently growing pool of cultural philanthropy.

There will inevitably be anguished reactions from some of the losers. Alan Davey, the council’s chief executive, admitted that some of the decisions were “agonising” to take.

But he also stressed they conformed to a “clear intellectual framework [that championed] talent, excellence and innovation”. It may not clinch the argument, but it does at least put an argument forward, and now the rebuttals will begin.

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