Last week Paule Constable, Emma Jayne Park and Bill Bankes-Jones were talking about the latest Arts Council England announcements around the Levelling Up and Let’s Create programmes. Bill lives in West Cornwall, EJ works across the border of England and Scotland and Paule moves between the South East and London, so it felt worthwhile to try to record their particular perspectives on these announcements in the hope that their voices might give us a cross-section of feeling through the country. So, where are we and what’s happened?
Bill: Just before the COVID-19 pandemic reached us, Arts Council England (ACE), published a 10 year strategy for 2020 to 2030 called “Let’s Create”. It was about targeting funding to make art that is relevant, inclusive, of quality, sustainable and that reaches people everywhere.
In Autumn last year the government agreed finances for the next few years in its Autumn Spending Review, including its allocation to the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Since then, there has clearly been a protracted discussion between the DCMS and ACE, with the government insisting on targeting funding to marginal constituencies that the Tories think they can win. This is really shocking: ACE funding is being used to get the Tories re-elected.
This programme is part of the government’s “Levelling Up” programme, targeting 109 “Levelling up for Culture Places”. This deal was finally announced the Wednesday that Russia marched into Ukraine. The staff of ACE hadn’t had any time to take this in so were pretty sketchy about what was going on or how this was going to be implemented. It’s all happening in a rush.
EJ: There was no thought or conversation about the impact on those people who are being levelled up …maybe even, against their will? Artists who’ve maybe been doing community focussed work for years are now being told that – though we can’t say this explicitly – other people might move their offices nearby to be funded. So no wonder there’s a lot of fear and anger. I’m angry. I hate these terms and this kind of thinking.
Paule: We’re now hearing the expectation of a “quick” turnaround, the anticipation of a speedy change. This is necessarily harmful. In the acceleration of Let’s Create,ACE are focussed on what is being produced where, not how.
So Levelling Up is essentially about redistribution, but what does that actually mean?
Bill: I’m astonished by the list of Levelling Up for Culture Places that ACE published. Here I am two miles from one of the most deprived estates in Britain, Treneere in Penzance, and the nearest Levelling Up for Culture Places are North Devon or the Isles of Scilly. That’s three and a half hours’ drive, if you’ve got a car; or three hours on a ferry.
EJ: I totally don’t support the way it’s being done, but I see why some people have responded with some angles of support. It’s playing to a political weapon that has been wielded towards a lot of people who have been overlooked for decades. This kind of decision pits us against each other instead of creating a structure or strategy around culture that is actually bothered about making sure everyone has access to the same experiences – if they want them..
For me, two big questions are: who is allowed to feel part of ‘culture’ ? And, who is allowing who? I’ve found this really difficult because I really believe in redistribution in the arts. The wage disparity I’ve seen between the highest paid people and the lowest in a single organisation makes me want to be sick – it’s disgusting. So I think it is really crucial to look at redistribution and spend per head in terms of overall infrastructure. However, if we just take money out of London and distribute it elsewhere, it is simply pretending to address redistribution. It’s not about change.
And another big question is: will large institutions be asked to find a small percentage of their income elsewhere? Or are we going to see London based independent makers and smaller companies who have NPO status lose everything they need to survive?
There’s a lack of strategy. It is glaringly obvious that we don’t know where this shift in money is coming from and how it will happen.
Paule: and talking about relocation: companies relocate outside of London, which has potential to create change. But does that mean that they purely put their office outside of London? We need to be asking, where are they actually making work? And who is based in that area to make that work with?
Bill: It’s really apparent that this was only agreed a fortnight ago. So any meeting you’re in it’s clear they don’t know what’s going on. They haven’t agreed the details of of how this policy is going to be enforced. They don’t know whether you can just move your office or you have to operate in that place.
EJ: I live in a rural area where people are doing absolutely brilliant work that is never noticed… People scrap and scramble to make it happen. And now we may have people bestowed upon us because they’ve relocated their office. Anyone I know in the areas I grew up in, will just be like, “Fuck off”, and that’s not going to help any of us long term. But I can’t blame them. I’ve screamed ‘Fuck off’ multiple times in almost every Zoom I’ve attended about it.
Bill: Yeah. A case could be made if the money is being taken out of London and given to people who have the greatest need but it’s not, it’s being taken to the people who are most likely to reelect the Conservatives in borderline places. And that is absolutely terrifying.
About 20 years ago someone from the Arts Council said to me, “there are too many artists in London”. You come away from that and go: artist eugenics is not really going to help this particular issue. You need to understand why there are a lot of artists in London. It’s because at some point in our creative life we need an exchange of knowledge. If you’re on the Isles of Scilly and you want to make your living as a theatrical scene painter, you’ll have to go somewhere else to do that. There’s never going to be a paint frame on Scilly with enough output.
EJ: What we need to be mindful of is that everyone can be an artist. There is no limit on the amount of art there can be. But there is a limit on the amount of work there can be with the current resource. I think that the difficult thing is that here we are talking about stripping jobs from one place to put jobs in another place. That’s not levelling up. That’s a weird redistribution. Levelling up looks like sustainable job creation and sustainable ecosystems that interconnect and feed each other. In the strategy we are being presented with, someone has to lose for someone to win. And that competition has been the narrative of the arts for my whole working life. If I get to do it, someone else won’t. I just want to say no – there’s enough art for everyone, it’s jobs that are an issue.
Could you tell me a little more about your thoughts around jobs and skills?
Paule: I noticed as I was looking through Arts Council England’s new policy around Freelancer engagement that they’ve put caveats within this about community and audience engagement, but they haven’t put any caveats in terms of workforce engagement.
You can’t deliver Let’s Create until you know who and where the workforce are and how to encourage them to generate meaningful opportunities for people outside London. This workforce has particular skills achieved only through training and experience.
EJ: But those skills can exist everywhere. Lynn Gardner wrote a nice article this morning in the Stage about how loads of table tennis players came from the same place. She broke it down and explained that it was because they had access to X, Y and Z. It’s not because suddenly there was something in the water that created a table tennis gene.
Some people want to believe that talent is a god-gifted thing. It’s not. You can’t just throw someone in without the level of investment someone else has had and expect them to be on equal footing. It’s setting people up to fail.
In any case, why would we imagine anyone starting their career would want to be part of this workforce? Look at the conditions we’re working in right now.
Paule: I mean that’s the elephant in the room in a conversation around this, isn’t it? It’s the Skills Retention Crisis, and it’s a real crisis.
Bill: There’s a really weird phenomenon here in Cornwall (so I’m told) in that, despite the concerns around people leaving the industry, it’s now easier to find, say, a dresser for a touring show. Because of COVID, all these young people who were making their way with very low wages or fees in London, or wherever, have come home to their families. So they’re here. And now, because there is no priority in funding, they’ll have to move again… whoever’s going to survive?
EJ: And then are we creating the conditions in which people can feel they’ve been shafted and therefore can be oppositional with others. We’ll end up shouting at each other more instead of collectively shouting for action, resource and actual strategy.
Bill: Now the Arts Council have to implement this bombshell-
Paule: I’m sorry I think they’re complicit. It’s an opportunity to deliver Let’s Create.
Bill: ACE must have said to the government that: we’re not accepting this money unless we tell people that it’s an instruction from you. There must have been pushback.
Paule: It’s hard isn’t it? Couldn’t they have said “fuck off with your extra £43 million”?
EJ: I’m very cynical about a lot of the Government propaganda around it. I think some of this money is Lottery money, which makes me laugh when the government logo has to be put on things. The Lottery’s another tax on the poor – that’s our money, get your logo off it!!
Bill: I did ask about that in one of our meetings – I never got an answer. But what’s happening in the destruction of the Arm’s Length Principle is the government is saying, “if you want money, it must be according to our criteria.”
Paule: And they’re controlling the criteria.
EJ: That’s really dark
Bill: Really, really dark. And the announcement came on the day Russia moved in to invade Ukraine. So it was eclipsed in this world of darkness.
The Arm’s Length Principle – that the distributor of funding should operate independently to the government.
EJ: Scotland seems to have a different understanding of arm’s length arts funders to that which I’ve experienced in the English system in the past couple of years. Am I just being cynical?
Paule: I think in this instance, what I hear often is that Arts Council England is meant to be arm’s length, and what I’ve witnessed in the past two weeks is a closing of that gap between government and Arts Council. I think this is one of the shocking things in the midst of the political and global turmoil. In this moment we’ve lost one of the absolute pillars of our arts and culture in England, the Arm’s Length Principle. Now the Arts Council is entirely and unquestionably politicised.
And the other thing that was really interesting in the conversation about it was how a roomful of producers and freelancers were very quick to express the post-pandemic toll on mental health. We’re being asked to engage with massive change when resources are low, and that toll’s not been acknowledged in it at all.
EJ: And once again, it’s competitive change. This isn’t about pulling together and pushing for something deeply meaningful, something that has been radically missing. We could be pushing for change collectively and as a coalition instead we’re been pitted against one another – it’s like the Hunger Games!
This also spreads beyond our own field because, in being politicised, these programmes play into that narrative of the London elite being over-served. And all it’s doing is making it look like Theatre and the things we do have always been elite government propaganda and that they shouldn’t be funded. And it’s clearly not. The work of artists across the country is phenomenal. I’m really worried that actually we’re stoking a much more serious Culture War that will damage us and damage engagement with any of the work we do in the long term.
EJ: So what can we do?
Paule: I think we need to ensure people understand the political agenda of what’s happening.
Bill: We each have to write to our MPs from our particular place and our particular viewpoint. A UK-wide template to send to your MP is no longer relevant.
You’ve talked a little about different kinds of movement. Levelling Up seems to be about redistribution through relocation. But you’ve also mentioned the need for exchange. How does this fit in?
Bill: The issue around it all, is the way it’s tied to place not to economic need. Where do you go to get your experience? I think almost every one of us has gone to a metropolis at some point to acquire the skills that we need to do what we’re doing.
Paule: That’s the whole point of culture, isn’t it? It’s exchange. In brilliant work you see yourself reflected. It questions you – whether that’s about a kind of community celebration, or it’s about more difficult themes, or imagining yourself in somebody else’s position – you can’t do that on your own. We’re not bubbles. We have to break down barriers, not build them up.
EJ: These were big conversations in the pandemic – how are we touring? Why are we touring? Who is this for? Are we doing it for our own ego and asking people to pay so we feel successful? But actually, we know that meaning often comes in exchanges and that touring companies offer exchange meaningfully when combined with well thought through local delivery.
Bill: And what we mean by ‘exchange’ is that you move freely between other partners, rather than under the diktat of central government.
Paule: That’s why that word ‘quick’ is so dangerous, isn’t it? Because that takes time. What’s more, if you don’t have an education strategy that works alongside this, what is the point?
EJ: Yeah, and an engagement strategy. For me, bigger than that, prior to all of those things: an infrastructure strategy. Where I live no one cares. No one I know and live around cares about these things, because their car tires are endlessly punctured by the potholes in the road. These things aren’t in opposition, they’re layers of the same problem, but, in reality, until infrastructure is addressed more broadly people will only be able to focus on their immediate problems – like heating or eating. There’s a lack of recognition of this in the arts. Let’s Create doesn’t take into account the lack of spend per head on infrastructure, or the fact that actually, if you were really to look at equitable ways of working, you have to spend more per head in most rural areas to actually get a balance and equal access.
Some organisations and institutions will never be 100% sustainable because of the work they do and that’s fine. But, I think there’s also a model in which some people are untouchable and they now expect their regular funding. I think this is where I’d like to see more “levelling up”. Where places that missed out on historic funding for infrastructure are given an opportunity to build that. But that can only happen if we ask: what does this ecosystem look like? What does sustainable mean? What are we willing to do differently? What do we need to let go of? And how are we doing this? This can’t happen within three or four years. It needs time and careful thought.
What’s wrong with trying to make a change quickly?
Paule: Everybody’s in crisis mode, and it’s just another thing that’s been thrown at them. Nobody has enough energy left to shout “wait a minute”.
EJ: No one has taken a holiday and come back refreshed. We are all still in the midst of huge global trauma as well as industry trauma. And this announcement felt like a click bait article or something: “Boom, I’m gonna throw a spanner in your works…”
Paule: It’s a hijack at the point when morale and resources are at absolute zero. It’s so dangerous in this moment because it’s so divisive. If you look back at UNESCO’s brilliant Culture and Crisis paper, it articulates that the industry needs to work together to get through this. This decision by ACE does nothing for that direction of travel.
The mistake is in the expectation of a “quick fix”. But this is not quick. Let’s look at these places: what do you actually expect that money to buy? What do you actually want this money to do? It feels so insubstantial when what we need now is substantial change to the structures we work within. Let’s Create and Levelling Upcould do something good in the future if they were genuine, strategised offers. We can’t do this quickly.
EJ: In my whole career, this industry has functioned on the survival of the fittest – though I think fittest is a reductive way to talk about who survives: survival of the people who survive, not necessarily by equitable means. I think this comes at a time where we’re all very vulnerable. We’ve been in survival mode, and I daresay I think it’s a really intelligent time to drop it in. Because actually, people won’t have the perspective, wherewithal – or are still pedalling too fast – to question it collectively. Instead we’ll fight fires and some will survive.
So what’s the Long Fix?
Paule: If you look at it that way, EJ, a massive strand of that needs to be training, doesn’t it? I don’t mean for just artists, but for everyone who works in the arts, how we encourage them to engage and be in different places. How we make opportunities for this to be possible.
EJ: And trust. How do we invest enough to build trust with communities who feel these forms are distant and elite because they’ve been ignored for the past 40 years? How do we build enough trust so that people in these communities might wake up on a Sunday and take the kids to a puppet show, or go and watch a National Theatre Live screening? How are we investing enough to create the cultural shift in which we’re actually relevant to more people in the country, rather than those who have access to it by birthright.
Paule: Of course we would all welcome a National Portfolio that looked genuinely more national…
EJ: Without getting all Union Jack and God Save the Queen!
Bill: I think I know what you’re going to say, but the only thing we can change is how the Arts Council administers this agreement and their funding schemes. And that’s the only place we can see any hope for the subsidised arts sector. The deal is done. So, in England, the thing we need to work with is Arts Council England.
Paule: I think we have to have some form of strategy or hub around building skills. It’s not only about jobs, it’s also skills, isn’t it? This is not unskilled work but it’s being treated in that way.
I think we have to keep putting pressure on. It’s really interesting that DCMS now have a workforce portfolio. That’s new. Freelancers are part of the recovery; Freelancers are an area of concern. But I think we need to go to the Arts Council hard and express that Let’s Create absolutely ignores jobs and skills.
EJ: And people. That’s my fear with relocation. Jobs don’t relocate, buildings don’t relocate. People have to uproot their lives. After two years of our lives being uprooted – no.
This newsletter was taken from the automatic transcription of a conversation between Emma Jayne Park, Paule Constable and Bill Bankes-Jones on Monday 7th March 2022 at 5.30pm. It was edited by Freddie Crossley.