In favour of … Dialogue

I met 10 people at the bus-stop the other day, a football team whose goalkeeper/minibus-driver had left without them. They needed some money to get to their game. I only had £10 on me, but I decided to give £4 to two of them, the striker who scored all the goals, and the creative playmaker who set them all up. I didn’t want the most valuable and productive players tiring themselves out walking. (In fact, they ended up taking a taxi.) I gave the remaining £6 to the other 8. This group was vociferously up in arms at this. I pointed out that the distribution was actually 60/40 in their favour, as the other group only got £4, less than their £6. It wasn’t anything unfair or inadequate, certainly not, the very thought. To avoid further insult I made my excuses and left, as they smiled benignly in my direction. Well, I think they were smiling…

Liz Hill of Arts Professional has done us all a favour by digging into the statistics in Arts Council England’s response to ‘the significant debate on regional funding that has been taking place in the sector over the past month’. She shows them to be, in the main, highly selective, if not downright misleading at times. (If not as inaccurate as mine above.) I suggest you read her analysis, which is excellent.

I’d have only one or two slight quibbles. I don’t think we can fairly blame ACE for the notion of Core Cities, for instance. They do add Gateshead to Newcastle, which the Core Cities group doesn’t. But I guess one can understand why. She is right to point out that the strategy of investing in clusters is not actually mentioned in Great Art and Culture for Everyone, but I’d generously see that as welcome clarification rather than anything else.

My opening fable was inspired by some of the language in a rather too-well-written document, which was what I wanted to talk about here. To describe the split of both Lottery and Grant-in-aid funding as ‘in favour’ of regions outside London, done twice, probably brought a smile to the face of whoever wrote it, thinking it was a canny piece of linguistic programming. It made me snort, and not in a good way. It’s overly defensive, doesn’t engage in the debate in a helpful way. The word smartarse did cross my lips, I admit it. It serves to make me think someone thinks people ought to shut up. That critics can’t add up, don’t know the relative size of London and the rest of England. It serves to put those with reasonable questions about distribution and decision-making in our place. Can that be what was intended? I can’t believe so.

I felt similarly about some of the other introductory statements, which have an implicit ‘only provincial dinosaurs are still worrying about this stuff we’re all in together’ tone. One passage which leapt out at me was ‘former causes of historical dispute, of London versus the regions, so called ‘elite’ art versus community art, rural versus urban, education work versus ‘the real work’. This idea that these and other disputes are part of history, done and dusted, and have no causes still inherent seems bizarre to me, especially at a time of growing inequality in all aspects of British culture. How London and the regions form a coherent nation, if you want to put it like that, is likely to be a key question in the next election. It’s not a historical issue, it’s a live one, even in the most successful cities outside London. And it’s cultural as well as economic.

The tension between versions of the arts – no ‘so-called’ for community art, by the way, did you notice that, very neat, eh? – is being played out in all sorts of ways, new and old. Close examination of ACE’s own Creative People & Places would show this, as we speak. That’s not a bad thing. If we were able to take power and class out of the equation – which we can’t – it might be tempting to see these things as not struggles, but what you might call diversities. By choice, luck or unfinished debate, we’d have, to borrow a term, a multicultural sector of diverse opinions, not one where all notions of culture and aesthetics have been mixed up into a coleslaw of consensus. (With the odd caper thrown in to demonstrate risk-taking.)

That would be awkward for ACE when arguing with government for investment, where they want united fronts and 100% good news. But to pretend ‘everyone’s happy nowadays’ has two effects.

Firstly, it serves to dampen the efforts that build exactly the kind of increased capacity ACE say they want. Those wanting to build up fantastic art from local communities, with fresh input from artists of whatever source, as opposed to touring in ‘provision’ from companies with no relationship with the venue beyond the programmer, are made out to be arguing against ‘Excellence’. (This applies in London too of course, where the inequalities are perhaps even harsher.) They aren’t, they are part of the potential evolution of the sector.

Secondly, it serves to close down informed and constructive dialogue – that shared, productive process that emerges from debate. Dialogue could lead to improvements and greater understanding of the multiple, contradictory pressures on ACE. This is something Alan Davey successfully helped ACE do when he came into post. He needs to renew that effort now. Better to grapple forwards through dialogue than to publish more and more reports trying to bat criticism away. (I notice that a new position statement on ACE and rural communities has been published just today.)

This England (lord, but I don’t like that title, by the way, redolent as it is of ‘the patriotic magazine for all who love our green and pleasant land’ and the like) would have been better off focusing on contributing to dialogue not argument. Something it does rather well at points is rearticulating ACE’s strategic intent and the main ways they see the ecology developing and needing intervention. This has strengths, weaknesses and areas for debate, of course, but is what I would expect. The sector then would also need to take our example from Messrs Gordon, Powell and Stark, up our game and avoid the easy choices of either simplistic sniping or quietism.

So in short: enough tactical but annoying case-making, enough debate, more dialogue please.