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Monday, 26 March, 2012
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On March 29 Arts Council England (ACE) announced provisional approval for some grants for "capital development" to be awarded to organisations all over England to improve or modify their apparently ramshackle facilities.
At the very top of the list,as you would expect, were the big organisations. The National Theatre with £17.5Million, The Southbank Centre at £20Million, The Royal Opera House for £10Million and perpetual purveyors of low pay for dancers at the English National Opera for a cool £2.1Million.
Other "regional theatres" will be given proposed amounts of, for example, £12Million at the Chichester Festival Theatre.
At the other end of the scale we have folks like South East Dance being awarded £925,000 so they can build "a purpose built internationally significant dance facility in Brighton". We feel sure that they mean building a dance studio, the "internationally significant" part is what you put in an application form to get money.
The reaction to these awards from some quarters was, as you would expect, vicious to the point of being extreme, even by our standards.
Theatre director Max Stafford-Clark described Arts Council via the Guardian, as "absolute vermin". He went on;
"I feel extremely bitter about the Arts Council," he said. "They produced an expensive pamphlet called Excellence for All in late 2010 and then instituted a policy which means excellence only for London and a few rich bastards in the country."
Viscous it may be but his point has a great deal of merit, the numbers don't lie after all.
Alan Davey, ACE CEO and an individual dubbed "the man of a thousand excuses", trotted out the usual explanations in defence of the funding monoliths latest PR calamity. He told The Guardian;
"The capital programme is about refurbishment or adding things to existing buildings - it was always a different kind of money, if you like. You can't use lottery money for continuing investments - it's got to be for projects or one-off payments, so it's not a direct comparison."
Beyond the numbers though there is a larger point to be made and it is a simple point, ACE just doesn't get it.
Changing The Rules
Mr Davey is correct in stating that lottery money cannot be used in the same way as money received via the government. The only thing stopping them from using the money differently however are the rules. So why not change the rules?
We asked ACE that very simple question, have they asked the DCMS to change the rules, to which they responded;
"With our lottery income predicted to rise we have developed more flexible ways of using our Lottery income which sit within the existing guidelines.
This includes our Strategic funds, such as our Capital, Catalyst, or our Audience Focused fund. We can also use lottery funds within the National Portfolio for very specific strands of work such as touring and work with children and young people.
We haven't to date sought a change because we are broadly content with the legislative and directions that currently exist. We, with the other lottery distributors, are in regular dialogue with DCMS officials and ministers on matters relating to the lottery."
In his statement to the Guardian Mr Davey opined that the rules on lottery funding have tied his hands, but then the press flacks claim that ACE are very much "content" with the way things are.
The funding monolith continues to bleat about the lack of money, how they are struggling through hard times like everybody else and trying the best they can. However, all this struggling doesn't appear to be stopping them from handing out huge sums of money, just shy of £50Million for four organisations in London, if they all make it through the second round of applications.
Over the next three years ACE is expected to grant over £440Million for capital funding.
Such lavish spending comes as the new financial year kicks in and hundreds of small arts organisations face a struggle to survive after their regular funding was cut because of a "lack of money".
During a conversation with a dance company director the subject of Rambert Dance Company's new building came up. Funded to the tune of £7million, the company director suggested the funding in the current climate was happening because the decision to award the money was made before the global financial crisis took hold.
A financial crisis that gave our delightful government the political cover to enact their calamitous funding cuts.
Whether or not that is the case it perhaps encapsulates the fundamental problem with ACE very neatly indeed. This lumbering beast of an organisation simply cannot or will not react to current issues quickly enough or smartly enough to be considered fit for the purpose for which it is intended.
Remember, ACE is "content" with the way lottery money can be used. Apparently because it provides them with sufficient cover to look after their friends in shiny places and also furnishes them with a convenient excuse when the masses cry foul.
Simply requesting a change of the rules so they can fund organisations on a regular basis if the amount requested is below £100,000 or even £50,000, a National Portfolio Lite if you will, is apparently beyond the group think at ACE central.
A funding programme like that would have saved a lot of hurt for small scale organisations and would have, perhaps, provided a path way for even more versatile small groups to get some financial stability.
Instead what we have is Tony Hall, CEO of the Royal Opera House and recipient of a £400,000 annual pay packet, bleating in the press about how ROH either gets the money or the sky will fall. Or some such nonsense.
In a further statement, ACE denied being completely useless, or at least they would if we asked them because who would admit to such a thing?