I was inspired by Francois Mattaraso’s excellent post on the “theory, policy and practice of arts funding” to go back to my days as an administrator at the Arts Council, during one of the strangest periods of arts funding in the late 90s. I say ‘strange’ because what went on was, at times, genuinely baffling – only some of which can be captured in a short blog such as this. (Arguably, the most remarkable feature of what went on in the second half of the 1990s is that the biggest changes did not happen under New Labour, but in the period leading up to the 1997 election. New Labour ushered in sweeping policy changes – and a fundamental shift in priorities for the sector – but in many ways that administration was much more risk-averse than the outgoing Conservative one.)
This blog focuses in on one aspect of Arts Council activity in the latter half of the 1990s: the short-lived birth, decline and fall of Arts for Everyone (A4E) and A4E Express.
Changes to the Lottery Act
As a result of changes to the 1993 National Lottery Act during 1995, the Arts Council was asked by DCMS to introduce a programme which, for the first time, used Lottery funding for revenue activity. As well as setting aside revenue funds to support arts organisations struggling with major capital projects (a ‘stabilisation’ programme), the new Lottery rules enabled the Council to use funds ‘to facilitate access to and participation in the arts’.
So, early in 1996, the Arts Council kick-started a period of external consultation (and introspection) which led to a radical re-casting of its role as an arts funder.
The consultation, which ran through the early months of 1996, was itself a significant departure from normal practice: open meetings, discussion groups, feedback forms – all of these fed into the emerging programme ideas. There were meetings with disability groups, BAME groups, young people – not to inform an overarching policy document, but to shape a new strand of funding. The desire to think radically including appointing sociologist Paul Willis (an academic specialising in the experience of working class boys) to advise on the development of a youth component.
Audiences, participation and young people
In November 1996, a few months after the consultation process, a new ‘Arts for Everyone’ programme was launched by Tony Robinson (who at that time was playing Baldrick in Black Adder), with the following objectives:
- Encouraging new audiences to experience high-quality arts activity.
- Encouraging and developing participation in arts activity.
- Getting more young people actively involved in arts and cultural activities.
- Supporting new work and helping it develop its audience.
- Building people’s creative potential through training or professional development.
The speed with which the recommendations of the consultation were adopted and implemented was unusual, and not without some internal struggle. While one might expect a national agency of this kind to be entirely comfortable with adopting objectives which aimed at “getting more young people involved” and “encouraging more participation” – it was pretty clear that what was being signed-up to was much more radical and far-reaching than staff, advisers and panel members had first appreciated.
Not all of the recommendations from the consultation were endorsed – for example, the recommendation that all applications for participation/community-based activity should be led by hitherto-unfunded community groups, rather than established organisations (NPOs or, as they were then called, Regularly Funded Organisations). Indeed, a deal was struck to allocate the lion’s share of the funds to that part of the scheme which was focused on the RFOs and to have this part of the scheme run by the art-form departments, to help the RFOs manage the apparently-challenging demands placed on them to work with new partners, including youth and community groups. However, a small but significant pot of funds was allocated to pilot some of the more radical elements through the much smaller A4E Express. In particular, to pilot a new approach to the administration of the scheme.
In short, a system of application and assessment was devised for A4E Express which by-passed established art form practices.
It’s still refreshingly surprising that A4E Express operated a system of assessment which provided £5k of funding to unconstituted youth and community groups, undertaking (self-defined) arts activity, based on the recommendations of two independent (and self-selected) referees (who might be youth workers, community leaders or local authority arts officers).
The results were remarkable, as captured in an independent evaluation of the programme commissioned by the Arts Council in 1997:
- £21m was allocated to 5,000 organisations over two rounds of funding
- An estimated 240,000 artists or performers were involved in activities which achieved audiences of 5 million people – reaching many parts of the country which had not previously benefited from Lottery funding
- 80% of applicants felt that the application form was simple to understand,
- Administration costs were around 2% of the overall funding allocated
- The programme was actively supported by artists, community groups, regional and other bodies
- 99% of local authorities consulted wanted the scheme to continue.
But it wasn’t. By the Summer of 1997 A4E Express had been scrapped.
The main reason cited for not continuing with the scheme was the cost – not the cost of running it, but the cost of its popularity and effectiveness: it was simply too successful at distributing funds in the way that it was originally intended (“more young people”; “more participation” etc.) and it risked diverting funds away from that part of the programme which was targeting the RFOs. £5m had been set aside for the A4E Express scheme targeting youth and community participation; but, after two rounds of funding, more than £20m was spent on projects which met all the Express criteria (1). Groups from around the country were putting together applications for a range of creative and innovative projects involving an extraordinary number and diversity of artists and audiences. And just 2% spent on administration? That’s a pretty impressive figure for a scheme which was giving out grants of £5000 or less.
But rather than tweak the system (for example by creating a rolling programme of £2-3m every six months; by adding an additional criterion which might have reduced the number of bids; or changing who could be a ‘referee’) – the Arts Council decided to completely scrap the programme.(2)
The dunny at the bottom of the garden
Money wasn’t the issue at all. It was much more fundamental than that: A4E Express took decision-making away from the Arts Council art form departments (and, indeed, the Regional Arts Boards). While, of course, art form departments were happy to support objectives aimed at increasing ‘participation’ by young people and others, and expanding audiences – a programme in which the arts activity was defined by the bidder, and in which endorsements were provided by local arts advisers, was deemed inappropriate for a national arts agency.
Although the main A4E programme was slower to get going, its ability to shift bigger amounts of money to a smaller number of organisations helped accelerate the demise of the Express programme: since the RFOs were demonstrating how committed they were to participation/young people/etc. the case for maintaining a programme which “diverted” funds from the mainstream was seen as a hindrance. As one very senior ACE officer put it in a team meeting: “why build a dunny at the bottom of the garden when we could have a bathroom in the main house?”
Ultimately then, A4E Express resulted in a reversion to the more conventional approach – reinforcing the power of the RFOs and the art form departments and, but for the £21m distributed, leaving youth and community practitioners out in the cold.
1. It’s worth noting that, while this inevitably meant that other Lottery schemes had less money, unlike grant-in-aid, Lottery funding was not allocated on an annual basis – so any ‘overspend’ could just be drawn forward.
2. A version of A4E Express was, of course, adopted a few years later by the other Lottery distributors and subsequently became the National Lottery Community Fund Awards for All scheme.