The current decimation of arts projects following huge cuts in funding to the Arts Council has received massive coverage in the media. But an aspect of this current crisis in the arts that has been less widely discussed is what lies behind it. I believe it is the Arts Council’s track record on new-build capital schemes that is largely to blame.
Of course, some distinction should be drawn between funding for smaller, local community arts projects, for which cuts almost invariably spell death, and vast capital projects. But the point is that projects at all points on this spectrum are now tarred with the same brush and are losing out.
Over the past fifteen or twenty years the view that new arts capital schemes – new galleries and complexes — could provide an anchor for wider urban regeneration became commonplace.
The idea took hold that new galleries and cultural initiatives were a kind of magic dust; sprinkle enough of this around and otherwise intractable urban development problems could be transformed into crowd-pleasing, tourist-attracting localities.
Nowhere was this view more evident than in the Arts Council’s role as lottery distributor for the arts. A string of high-profile but ill-planned and unsustainable capital projects have gone bust over the past decade. West Bromwich’s The Public, to take but one example, cost almost twice its planned budget — over £50m rather than the planned £32m — and went into administration before its official opening.
A recent parliamentary select committee report has launched an openly hostile attack on the Arts Council England, accusing it of waste, profligacy, and spending too much on itself. Hardly surprising that MPs have found the case of The Public an irresistible stick with which to beat ACE. ACE’s reply — that The Public was ‘old news’ — was tantamount to providing the executioner his axe.
There is a lesson here for all of us — for all kinds of social enterprises and public benefit businesses.
These failures show us how otherwise self-evidently half-baked ideas can become elevated into a kind of orthodoxy and, lacking a reality-check, sweep along even those who should be saying, ‘Hang on a second, we never said a new fifty-million quid community arts space (or whatever) would work just anywhere’.
Dot.com companies in the late-1990s, tulip bulbs in the 1630s, sub-prime mortgage CDOs in the 2000s, the Irish property boom, Australian nickel mining shares in the 1970s…. Bubbles — speculative manias — can happen almost anywhere, at any time, for any commodity. They can also happen with ideas — especially social policy ideas.