For those of you who couldn’t attend the AD:uk Conference, which took place on Thursday 28th and Friday 29th November last week, we thought you may like to read Jane Wilson’s presentation. Jane’s speech is below:
“Our conference, always relevant, is happening at a particularly interesting time this year, with the recent publication of Rebalancing our Cultural Capital, Towards a Plan A, and the Arts Council of England’s refreshed strategy, Great Art and Culture for Everyone and I wanted to reflect very briefly on the AD:uk position, and open up the opportunity for a dialogue over the next two days with you all, so that as we take forward our national role we are very much reflecting your thoughts.
We know that we are operating in a radically changing environment, with major public sector disinvestment from the arts – historically the primary source of that investment outside of the major urban centres has been local authorities, and that the removal of that resource is having a particular impact, affecting not only their own staff but the whole investment in an area – affecting every organisation that works on contract, or needs support for a planning application, or a community project in a location. In my own county, Cambridgeshire, over the past ten years, local authority funding for the arts has fallen by over £500,000 per year, with an associated loss of specialist arts officer posts. We know from our investment survey, that the picture of complete disinvestment by smaller authorities, and reductions from larger ones is widespread, with worrying signs that locations where the argument for culture has always been very strong also starting to reduce their investment. It isn’t just about the loss of funding; it’s about the loss of expertise. Specialist officers, able to provide Members with the local case for culture, to feed into planning and development, and to broker links with the professional and amateur sectors, are no longer present within these key local decision making bodies. And even where individuals have been retained, job titles and roles have changed, leaving me with the sense that a great swathe of specialist knowledge and experience is existing only on very borrowed time.
Here, within AD:uk, we have been able to see this change from the inside, and our own changes to our constitution and role have helped us and you to find a pragmatic way through this change, and so that you are still managing to continue to put arts at the heart of communities, with new partners, and new ways of working. One of the absolute best parts of working in our field is that the level of optimism and enthusiasm almost ever present in the actual practice of arts in communities is phenomenal. With comparatively tiny resources, even sometimes just permission, remarkable events can and do take place, and you have all been at the forefront of finding new ways to practice, to support and release that enthusiasm for creativity.
However, we can’t always work miracles, and as that expertise and voice within local authorities is lost, and lost over increasingly large areas of the country, the long legacy of local authority recognition of the role of the arts in what is now called place-making, is put at risk. In the short term, we, you, are all working very hard to find other ways to deliver, and we will be focusing over the next two days on the best and most innovative ways of working, but the capacity to plan for the longer term is increasingly squeezed, and thinking more than a few years ahead is becoming very difficult.
In that context, it is very pleasing to see the start of a proper conversation about the future of arts policy and our immediate contribution to the debate is yes please – we do all need to work together to find a way through the challenges, and I would like to suggest that we start by fully examining the relationship between what we want and need to achieve, what our starting point is, and how we move from one to the other with significantly reduced public subsidy. For those of us who have worked in or with Local Authorities, this is not a new game, and we have increasingly well developed tools to help with the process. It will inevitably lead to difficult decisions, but by working together, being open and honest about our goals, with the creativity inherent within our sector it should be possible to find a constructive way forward.
It does mean opening the conversation up, and this is a challenge to the professional arts sector. It has been too easy in the past for the arts world to talk predominantly to itself and then expect those outside the conversation to understand and agree. We cannot simply say that local funding for the arts is being lost because local authorities don’t get it or aren’t listening; the arts world also needs to look at itself and ask what it can do better. Whether or not the detail of the figures is correct, the broad thrust of Rebalancing Cultural Capital, chimes with the experience of many of our members – that in areas away from the main urban centres, professional arts can seem distant, a different species to the active, community based arts present on the ground, and that very distance and difference can then make it harder to make the case for local investment.
The challenge articulated within Towards A Plan A, of the arts moving to the heart of place based commissioning means full engagement with place, stepping outside the professional arts world, and having a mutually reflective conversation. I believe that you are all very well placed to be at the heart of that conversation – working as you do at the very point at which a meaningful and creative dialogue takes place between ad within artists and communities and I very much look to being able to start that conversation here, with you, over the next two days.“
Jane Wilson: Chair of AD:uk and Director of ADeC.
The conference attracted over 190 delegates from across the UK and Ireland, and early feedback indicates that it was one of our best yet.