In the turmoil of the new government’s inventory efforts, a decree was passed with few comments: a day before it was to announce new three-year funding commitment to arts organizations across the country, Arts Council England (ACE) has been tasked by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to hold the fire. This may seem like a small beer in the context of all the departmental cuts to come, but it left the 828 national portfolio organizations – which ACE regards and supports as the crown jewels of the country – in a terrifying 10-day vacuum.
They include theatre, dance and opera companies, orchestras, art galleries and museums. For many, the fear is existential: it’s not just about whether their income will be cut when the current term ends in April next year – most have prepared for it anyway – but s they will survive.
The threat to London businesses is particularly extreme. Former Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries had already requested that £24million a year was to be removed from the ACE budget in the capital by 2025-26, to be redistributed to other parts of England. Some rushed to move, but even that may not save them. They are only part of the remit of Mrs Dorries’ successor, Michelle Donelan, who must play tough at the negotiating table ahead of the delayed November 17 budget.
For obvious reasons, DCMS is not considered one of the priority services: it does not solve the heat crisis or food crisis, close the balance of payments deficit or reduce hospital waiting lists. However, a world in which the lights were allowed to go out on culture would not only be a sadder place, but also a genuinely poorer place. Creative industries enrich lives and – especially in times of financial crisis – inject money into the economy. They are one of the few sectors in post-Brexit Britain to have an unblemished reputation as a global player, and they export that reputation through international touring and partnerships, building understanding and respect which equals soft power. They are also, according to DCMS’ own figuresone of the largest employers in the country, providing nearly 7% of all jobs in the UK.
Despite all the many blunders by the government of the day in its handling of the pandemic, Treasurer Rishi Sunak recognized this value, in partnership with Oliver Dowden at DCMS, by setting up the cultural recovery fund. This not only kept the house fires going, but also drew applause from a segment of the population not usually used to sounding the Tory trumpet. They then helped meet the challenge of bringing the public back to the performing arts by temporarily increase tax credits which could be claimed. This figure is expected to start falling from April – exactly when the funding bomb is due to land.
The current ACE grant budget of £341m per year it’s peanuts in terms of public finances. Now is not the time to admit defeat. This is the time for strong arguments and imaginative thinking about what can concretely be done to keep the heart of culture beating. These must go beyond pinched ACE finances to extend tax breaks, rethink business rates and reconsider the relationship between culture and tourism. The well-being of the nation depends on it.