Monday, May 20, 2013

Getting the measure of 'Baz'

Last week, I was invited to a Q and A in Parliament, with the new Chair of the Arts Council, Sir Peter Bazalgette. It was an event organised by the Performers’ Alliance Parliamentary Group, jointly run by Equity, the Musicians’ Union and the Writers’ Guild.

I took a few notes during it, and wanted to write them up for my own records, but thought it might be worth reproducing them here. The meeting was only semi-public; it was held in one of the Committee Rooms in the Commons and though you could probably have wandered in if you were passing, officially you had to be invited by one of the unions who’d arranged it.

It was quite a small affair, with perhaps 30 people – a mixture of MPs and Lords, union members and Arts Council staff. We mostly all fitted around one large table, and people drifted in and out over 90 minutes. (Mostly out, actually. Lots of the MPs in particular said their piece then left, presumably for other Parliamentary business.) 

I was introduced to Peter Bazalgette beforehand, who insists on being called ‘Baz’ in person. He seemed friendly and approachable and made it clear he knew who I was, and had read In Battalions, which was encouraging (he even referred to it in his speech). 

He started by thanking everyone for coming along, and stressed that this was a listening exercise, and that all ideas were welcome. He was new in post and wanted to hear from us. He gave the impression of genuinely entering into this in the right spirit. Then he went on to outline the priorities for ACE in the short and medium term.

Short term, there was the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), which would set Government budgets across departments until the end of the 2015-16 tax year – though there is of course a general election planned by May 2015, so all bets are off after that.

The CSR results will be announced on 26 June, and though the outcome is unknown, the rumours are not good: an average 10% across departments, though of course this won’t be evenly spread. ‘Baz’ pointed out that ACE income had been cut every year since 2010, by 29% at first, followed by a further, cumulative 5%. Another 10% on top of that would be devastating. 

So the first priority is to make the case to Treasury as best we can in the coming weeks. 
The second short term priority was the situation with local authorities, especially outside London. He cited an average 40% reduction to arts funding from councils, though of course this was also not evenly spread. Baz said he had travelled to 15 cities since coming into post, and met with local government leaders to raise this issue. He said it was a priority to cast the arts as an essential service – even though of course there is no legal obligation for councils to continue to fund them. 

Then he moved on to medium term priorities. There were two of these. 

First, was the need for the arts to diversify its income streams. Every time he mentioned this, and it came up a few times, he went out of his way to emphasise that this wasn’t to replace Government funding, which he confirmed he considered an essential “seed corn”, but was just about helping the arts survive at a difficult time. He cited an FT study which showed how London-centric philanthropy was, and said we need to address that. He also said we need to make a better case for the arts as social enterprise. 

The second medium-term priority was digital, in particular making better use of new technology. He recognised that it was early days, but also said the arts were perhaps 3-5 years behind the commercial sector in this respect. He divided the focus up into new creative work on digital platforms, distribution and marketing. He said about distribution in particular, this was about extracting maximum value from public money by disseminating the work further, citing NT Live, The Space and work some orchestras were doing. He said this would not be key to organisations securing funding, but was about audiences. 

Marketing was obviously about sales and more effective business practices, but wasn’t just ‘bums on seats’ – it was about data collection and sharing among organisations with similar audience bases, and “customer relations management”, involving them more in what we do. 

Then he took questions. 

Some speakers asked him to look at the definition of London, with David Lammy MP in particular making an impassioned plea for more work to happen outside zones 1 and 2 – likening the situation in Tottenham and Bromley and places like that as being equivalent to the most culturally-deprived regions, in terms of ACE investment. Lammy also asked for an emphasis to be placed on young people, and that we focus not just on economic value but on cultivating the arts as a civilised nation. Lammy said that ACE needs to make it clear to the Government that they are “being asked to massacre now”. He even thumped the table a little bit. 

Baz seemed to agree; he made the point that the arts need to articulate their “social value” better, especially in relation to benefits arts can bring to education, health and social care. 

One Lord said he wanted ACE to re-think the amount of funding it gives to “the big boys”, and that even a small slice from an opera company or other large national flagship was a lot of money which could be better spent on smaller companies. He accused such institutions of a sense of entitlement, and that the biggest ones are the best placed to replace it with philanthropy – citing the South Bank Centre. (Baz didn’t agree or disagree with all this in the moment, he just made notes and thanked speakers for their contribution.)

Someone else echoed the London-centric point, and quoted the statistic that London received two-thirds of all public arts investment. The Catalyst fund was particularly singled out.

Baz did respond to this by saying that we can’t dismantle those big institutions, and that we need flagship centres of excellence to set standards and inspire others. Some of the regional ones, like the Lowry in Salford, had transformed whole areas. However, he did recognise that the big boys had the ability to submit “gold-plated bids” to funds like Catalyst, because they could employ specialist fundraisers to work on them. He said this was a problem and that ACE needed to look at how to support smaller organisations in putting in better bids – which could perhaps involve some funding to support the bid-writing process itself. He also added that the national organisations, especially those with the actual word ‘national’ in their title, needed to do more to live up to that name. But he did also say that ACE had been reviewing Catalyst and that it had been a big success in achieving what it set out to do.

One MP said he had never been lobbied by a single constituent about arts funding, and that only 1% of charitable giving goes to the arts. It was also acknowledged that philanthropy was inherently unstable as a funding source. This led on to a discussion about inheritance tax breaks for making gifts to the arts, and other incentives. Apparently most higher rate taxpayers who donate don’t claim gift aid at the higher rate, so that’s revenue the arts is missing out on.

Community foundations came up as a financial model used by some charities, but I have to admit I didn’t really know what they are. (If you do, please tell me in the comments box below.)

Baz said that ACE were busy offering training to arts fundraisers, and had employed Tom Hughes-Hallett, a well-known fundraiser for Marie Curie Cancer care. One of his strategies was to get every donor to act as an advocate for the cause.

Baz also talked about the cuts which ACE itself had had to undertake – going from over 800 staff 18 months ago to 440 now. He talked about the Lottery income of the Arts Council, which sustains its Grants for the Arts programme, as being all about the “next generation of talent”, with Grant-in-Aid being about infrastructure. He also added that one of the roles of state funding is to take risks – something which philanthropy almost never does. He added: “You’ll read about the ones [risks] which don’t come off in the Daily Mal – we’ll take that on the chin.”

He said that politicians were openly talking to him about austerity continuing into 2016-17 and even 2017-18, so there would be further significant cuts to come. But he also seemed to acknowledge the futility of such cuts to arts and culture in actually reducing the deficit. He quoted one source as saying the entire DCMS budget was “a rounding error in the Ministry of Health”. So it doesn’t save much to cut it.

I put one suggestion and one question to him towards the end. The suggestion I made re-visited the ‘social value’ argument of the arts, which I was pleased he had mentioned. I asked whether ACE would consider ring-fencing a pot of discretionary Lottery funding to pay for artists’ community residencies, so that a poet, singer or writer could raise their own fee to become an artist-in-residence in a school, hospital or social services team.

Then I asked a more controversial question about whether he thought we could take Maria Miller’s recent request for more evidence of the arts’ economic impact in good faith. I have been doing my own research, I told him*, and there are economic reports about the arts’ value stretching back 25 years, with an average of one every two years (more if you count more localised economic impact studies commissioned by individual venues).

Was Miller genuinely overlooking this body of evidence? Or was her request perhaps more of a tactic, to keep us running around while the CSR is going on, in which the conclusion is a foregone one?

It was perhaps a silly question to ask, because what could he really say about this in public? But it’s something I wanted to bring up, because it’s a conversation I’ve been having behind the scenes with a number of colleagues (not least David Chadderton of the British Theatre guide in the recent podcast here.) It frustrates the hell out of me that we can’t have an honest conversation with politicians about this. We don’t mind if they hate us. We’d just rather know, and not have our time wasted. (Though I didn’t say that last bit.)

Baz looked a bit uncomfortable, and said that Miller was offering to “go in to bat” for us with the Treasury, and that we had to support her in that. 

I suppose in a way he’s right.

But the main effect of my question was to overshadow getting an answer to my suggestion about a Community Residencies fund, so that was a bit daft. I will just have to bring it up again.

Overall, I was left with the impression of someone who genuinely wanted to do a good job, in an area which was somewhat new – though he has sat on the boards of arts organisations before, which is encouraging. It was good that he made the time to be there, and engaged with everyone there, and all the points made, in a spirit of openness. I hope this is just the start of our conversation.

It will be if I’ve got anything to do with it.

* I have been collating the main studies, and might do a future blog post on this.


Adam Lopardo said...

I can tell you about Community Foundations, I work in the biggest one in the UK (based in Newcastle) and i specialise in arts philanthropy and business engagement in the arts. Community Foundations work with individuals, families, businesses, charities and sometimes government to match their giving with groups and individuals in local areas to make their areas of work a better place to enjoy life. They started in America and there are about 1400 worldwide with 54 in the UK covering 98% of the population. You can find out more at the UK Community Foundations website here

We work with businesses and philanthropists to engage them in the arts and manage a number of funds that benefit specific arts organisations (The Sage Gateshead and Seven Stories the Centre for Childrens Books) as well as funds that support individuals (performers, artists etc) and arts organisations. Many of our non-arts focussed funds also support arts activity depending on what their focus is. Through our Sponsors Club project we are currently recipients of Catalyst money to develop arts philanthropy in the region and build a North East Fund for the Arts. We are also working with Newcastle CIty Council about managing their proposed Newcastle Culture Fund.

Based on our work and the a range of arts funds we manage and the links to donors at a local level we have been advocating for some time for closer ties between the arts and Community Foundations where practical and possible2. I am running a session at the upcoming Community Foundation Conference in Bristol in September on it. Baz will at the conference.

Happy to talk more if you or anyone else is interested. You can find my details here

Adam Lopardo

Adam Lopardo said...

P.S. I like the idea of community residencies, that might also be something a Community Fondation could help with.

Fiona Evans said...

Keep up the good work, Fin. Community residencies are a great idea. I am a playwright trying to set one up as we speak.
What I do find slightly worrying is the emphasis always seems to be on employing administrators - the money for that is never questioned as much as the money spent on artists. This is from someone who comes from an arts admin background. I've seen many budgets where the administrators are on a far higher daily rate than the artist delivering the project.

Polly Gifford said...

Thanks for sharing that meeting with a wider audience.

I feel that we've been pushed from pillar to post by this economic vs social value argument for years. As you rightly say, there are countless reports that articulate both cases very well and in lots of different ways, but they're either ignored or not quite hitting the right buttons.

There was an interesting article in arts professional (issue 264) by the economist John Kay arguing that the whole idea of economic value as currently used is totally inappropriate anyway.

I have to say that I don't share Baz's hope that Maria Millar will 'go in to bat for the arts' and actually doubt that he does either.

Anonymous said...

I am one of those who lost his company in the first round of cuts. Since then i have barely worked and have fallen into depression and nearly made homeless. These are the real affects of cuts.
David Glass