The Arts Funding Debate (again)

#culturebanking 

Ever come across a surprisingly large organisation which simply falls apart due to financial mis-management?

Naming no names, there are particular, largely public sector financial conventions which consistently lead to the wasting and mis-management of money. Probably the most widespread is the government auditing led practice of ‘spend to save’. We all know this and most have individual anecdotes. I’m talking about the time honoured tradition in which government departments (it happens across the European Community too) make ill-planned and sometimes vast transfers of cash to the first recipient who can most easily receive it on the basis that if the money allocated is not spent in the current financial year, it will mean a reduction in the following years budget. The ongoing effect of these ill timed payments (they happen more often than anyone would want to admit) is not only poor strategic use of the investment but often the hamstringing of good work which the recipient was carrying out under greater pressures brought on by the responsibility of spending millions of pounds on some hastily invented projects which become financial millstones hindering core services rather than helping. Rewards are for wasting money and not saving it.

This system of government and local authority financing has found a natural antidote, all be it not a desirable one in everyone’s books with privatisation of functions, but this doesn’t always address the problem as contracts are allocated and funded in much the same way to private tendered companies as they were previously.

In considering the real machinations of financing specific government and LA functions, we are really evaluating those areas of service delivery and governance which might lend themselves to being financed in an alternative way and those which demand only the accountability which being under the direct control of an elected chamber can offer.

We could all make our own lists of which might be which – and why not? Here’s a quick ‘back of a beermat’ effort:

‘Out-sourced': Bins, Roads, Maintenance Works, Property Management, Tourism and Leisure.

‘Direct government funded and direct accountability': Police, Treasury, Children’s Services,  Planning, Social Services.

Ok – that’ll do. Some may not be black and white – but you get the gist. It’s at this point – and you see it clearly by looking at all local authorities with under £20 Million annual budgets: ‘Arts and Culture’ probably doesn’t even warrant it’s own officer or department.

Compounding this, the Tory government has favoured directing available funding towards the Arts Council and away from local authorities to and so we are hearing a plethora of ‘initiatives’ from that direction aimed at ‘democratising’ arts and culture. ’64 Million Artists’ is one such venture, whereby consultants are hired to approach the Arts Councils’ crop of chosen ‘providers’ in order to ‘explore’ ways of ‘reaching out’ to the ‘grass roots’ of ‘arts and culture’ in our regions. Pardon the over use of inverted commas but the language is so taken for granted and over used – they are needed.

The result of this preference for arts-specialist funding over local authority (ie non art-form specific community based funding) is to raise the status and the scope of many of our National Portfolio Organisations who are and always have been chiefly arts organisations to ‘arts organisations with service level agreements’ on behalf of local authorities who have little or no function or funding left for arts and culture.

In light of these developments, where you decide to put your ‘arts and culture’ offer in our two lists seems less problematic: It sounds like it’s being (like it or not) farmed out to the Arts Council – so we’ll bung it in the ‘Out-sourced’ category. Except the Arts Council is hardly a risk taking, innovative private sector led organisation. It’s basically entirely reliant on public money. But you have to fund arts if you want quality arts provision don’t you? And isn’t that what the Arts Council does? So, whats the problem..?

Well, the problem is the Arts Council has no grass roots. it’s a very large tree, with a wide drip-line, under which there are many many febrile roots reaching out to the widest tips of its branches, but nothing else grows underneath it. There is no lawn of interconnected grass roots which will grow as one whilst being independent and ‘diverse’. If you cut the tree down, it will not grow back, as grass roots do. But you might get some interesting grasses developing….

So what’s #culturebanking and what does it have to do with all this……?