England’s cultural leaders have had late nights over the last week, as they attempt to clamber aboard the sturdiest life raft yet to appear in the stormy COVID-19 seas. Applications closed today for the first round of Arts Council England’s Cultural Recovery Fund Grants. That will see grants being made for the first £500 million from the UK Governments £1.57 billion cultural sector Covid-19 bailout. A further scheme for loans of over £3 million for large organisations follows shortly.
The UK was lagging behind other countries in putting money behind the recovery of the cultural sector. So congratulations to the Arts Council on moving quickly after the Government announcement.
Three things struck us.
ACE have kept things as simple as possible but inevitably, with this amount of public money, there are some serious hoops to jump through. It throws into sharp relief the perennial problem of aligning funders and fundees concerns. Trying to produce a budget profiling template that can fit everything from a one-man-band (perhaps literally, if he had pursued one of nine forms of incorporation deemed eligible!) through to the Royal Opera House is going to cause headaches for everyone. And the irony of a sector of ardent remainers struggling through 500 words of guidance on EU State Aids, eight months after Brexit, wasn’t lost on us. But it will be worth it in the end, for the successful at least.
So who will get the grants? The criteria seem to revive that hoary old arts world chestnut of access versus excellence, with organisations asked to justify themselves in terms of either “national and international significance” or “promoting cultural opportunity”. It’s perhaps not quite as stark as that, as organisations can, if they like, respond to both criteria. But in a world where many cultural organisations frame their activities in a more holistic way than this either/or suggests, it will be interesting to see how organisations describe the relationship of their work to their audiences.
And where will the money finally end up? A common criticism of the the £1.57 bailout was that it was only for organisations, when so much of the cultural sector is made up of individuals and freelancers. It didn’t, people claimed, respond to the realities of the cultural ecosystem. So it is interesting to see that the guidance explicitly allows claims for “essential business expenditure, such as staff salaries, freelance employment and fixed/operational costs”. We are about to see an illustration of the underlying structure of the creative economy. How much of the cultural recovery fund will end up in the deserving hands of freelancers? And if these freelancers are part of organisations’ absolute bedrock, barely-keeping-the-wolf-from-the-door expenditure, might there be a more secure and sustainable way to structure their employment?
Good luck to all the applicants. We don’t envy the judgements of Solomon required over the next few weeks. Many will be disappointed. Even £500 million is only a small part of the solutions to such a huge challenge.