Monthly Archives: July 2011

Urban arts and cultural strategies in the New Age of Austerity

Archipelago 'Consulate of Cornerhouse'

Image from 'Consulate of Cornerhouse', a project by Archipelago, February 2011

by Dr Abigail Gilmore, Director of the Centre for Arts Management and Cultural Policy.

At a recent conference on collaboration and new working in the arts, Alan Davey, the Chief Executive of Arts Council England, stressed the need for a thrift, a steady hand and careful book-keeping in the near future of cultural policy and arts funding: ‘we have to go back [to Treasury] and show efficiencies even when value of these are quite small’. Following the tremors of the new coalition and the Comprehensive Spending Review, the arts in England is, it seems, entering a period of tentative recovery, pulling its shoulders back, looking around and getting back to business. There are the expected aftershocks, of course, but the sector, its leaders, policy makers and pundits, are declaring themselves ready and resolved for a period of substantial reconfiguring: “resilience is one of our 5 goals” (Davey again). New models, collaborations, practices are being discussed to shore up the coffers as the public funding in arts and culture has been significantly reduced.

The Comprehensive Spending Review saw an overall reduction in spending of 24% on culture, with the capital budget reduced by 32%, metered out with protection of ‘front-line services’ whilst administration taking the heat (the Department for Culture Media and Sport had 41% cut to its core administration budgets of Arts Council England is cut by 50%). And there is the requisite ‘bonfire of the cultural quangos’ as 19 out of 55 public bodies for culture are being axed or reformed, including the abolition of the UK Film Council and merger of Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. Since October 2010 the Arts Council has carried out an overhaul of its regular funding for arts organisations – now called National Portfolio Organisations, 695 have had their funding for the next three years established, but 206 previously regular funded organisations have had their funding cut.

The recognition that the age of austerity is open the arts can be read from the wistful titles of recent conference such as A Golden Age? Reflections on New Labour’s Cultural Policy, and We are not in Kansas Anymore and clarion calls for collaboration including events such as Let’s work together and Stronger Together. There is much collective searching for new and better case-making for investment in the arts, and evidence and valuation of the benefits of a healthy arts sector are being drafted in, drawing on the instrumental lessons of the previous government in measuring social and economic impact in new and even more technically complex ways, from social returns on investment models to economic proxies for subject wellbeing and the levels of income cultural participation may compensate. There are new schemes to incentivize other investment streams and encourage arts organisations to change their funding models – including private giving, venture philanthropy, ‘donor development’ and crowd funding.

So cultural policy and coordination is changing – and explicitly shifting from discourses of state subsidy, intervention and support for social inclusion, cultural diversity and entitlement to discourses of participatory, private and ‘no-touch’ policy, where the extrinsic forces are philanthropy, cultural diplomacy, collaboration, do-it-yourself, do-it-outside, do-it-digitally and most of all do-it-for-free.

What of cities and what of Manchester? How is this effecting the coordination of culture at a local level? Under New Labour, Chris Smith made the recommendation in 1999 that every place should have a cultural strategy to provide frameworks for local action, based on the thematic priorities for chosen geographies with respect to culture’s presumed role in economic development, tourism, place marketing and other social agendas, such as inclusion, education and cultural diversity (DCMS 2000). Manchester was one of the first major UK cities to have a comprehensive ten year cultural strategy and the establishment of a cultural partnership to oversee its delivery in 2002, replete with targets and performance indicators across its five themes, a dedicated team of officers based at the heart of the local authority, with senior management in the Chief Executive’s Office, and four Culture and Regeneration officers based in outlying neighbourhood delivery teams.

The city’s cultural strategy was recently reinvigorated as the Manchester Cultural Ambition, launched last year, with work to develop a performance framework to underpin and evaluate the strategy owned by the Manchester Cultural Partnership and led by the Cultural Strategy Team, but is about to meet its most profound challenge, as local authorities suffer swingeing public funding cuts and the dissembling of local and regional structures for governance, investment and scrutiny. Local strategic partnerships have been replaced by Local Economic Partnership, not noted for their inclusion in the community and voluntary interests which make up much of backbone of cultural activity at neighbourhood level. Manchester was one of the authorities worst hit by fiscal cuts and is currently reviewing and restructuring delivery teams and losing or moving key skills around the authority, as 2000 jobs are cut, major services such as Youth severely diminished and library and leisure centres closed. The Cultural Strategy team will be reduced and the Cultural Partnership reconfigured; with the economic agenda sharpening its teeth, the priorities of the cultural strategy will be the possibilities for economic growth and sustainability through cultural engagement.

Arts and cultural services are, with the exception of library provision, non-statutory, and although they have for many years become adept at demonstrating their value to other agendas, in this new localism arts organisations, artists and companies are battling with others to demonstrate their value over co-commissioning and competing for ever tighter resources. Their articulations of value are no longer enshrined by the New Labour Public Services Agreements which formalized and set targets for the expectations of social and economic returns from public funding, articulated at a local level through Comprehensive Area Agreements. Rather, the new Government claims to drive through an eradication of target-setting and audit culture and an attack on bureaucracy in order to reform public spending and move from a regime of ‘bureaucratic accountability’ to ‘democratic accountability’, to provide greater opportunities for citizen participation (Hanberger 2006). In reality, the processes of scrutiny are now shaped by new targets which form part of the contract agreements between investors and funders, such as Social Impact Bonds, returns-based funding and private and charitable giving.

Meanwhile, the city centre arts and cultural institutions – the galleries, museums and performing arts venues and companies that are part of the civic heritage and identity of Manchester – are recovering from the re-ordering of funding from Arts Council and the DCMS. Manchester has always prided itself as a city of production – the original modern city – and this pride continues, as the city as an engine for cultural production, which will continue to invest in its cultural economy and ecology. The discourses of ‘resilience’ are manifest in the ebullient announcement a month after the CSR, of a new merger between the Library Theatre company (part of the local authority) and Cornerhouse, the cross-art form venue, and the backing of a new £19m venue to house the new company. A further new partnership was announced not long after as Maria Balshaw took up the shared Directorship of the Manchester Art Galleries and Whitworth Art Gallery. And the city is banking on predictions that the growth sector of the creative economy is still growing, aided by fruition of MediaCityUK – in the Greater Manchester area the creative, digital and new media sector is forecasted to continue in growth to 2032 and beyond albeit at a slower rate than in the last decade (New Economy 2010).

What are the needs of the Big Society at local, neighbourhood level and what can and do the arts and culture provide? In these straightened times, it is ever more incumbent on cultural organisations to work in partnership with other service providers and demonstrate the value of social and public engagement and participation in participatory arts, volunteerism and creative economies and to realise these values, through potential routes into employment, skills, social capital, wellbeing, community development, and other extrinsic effects.
Of course, local authorities and their cultural strategies cannot be solely responsible for making the culture of cities, and likewise artists, arts and cultural organisations are not responsible for the social, economic or cultural welfare of places, even if they are required to mark their contribution. Urban cultural policy, arts funding and cultural strategies are the means by which to attempt to maximize the value of opportunities and resources that reside in city cultural infrastructures, including the human resources of the city’s communities. Arts and culture help people to make and tell the stories of their lives, and can provide the means by which people change these stories. Manchester, like other places, will need to reassess and remodel the ways in which it strategically supports culture in the city with fewer resources and ever more alacrity to achieve these ambitions.

Department of Culture, Media & Sport (2000) Creating Opportunities: Guidance for Local Authorities in England on Local Cultural Strategies London: DCMS

Hanberger, A. (2006) Democratic accountability in decentralized governance Paper given at Conference on the Interpretive Practitioner: From Critique to Practice in Public Policy Analysis, 10 JUNE 2006, Birmingham available here.

New Economy (2010) Greater Manchester Forecasting Model final main outputs available here.

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