Whether we work independently or within one of Arts Council England’s (ACE) National Portfolio Organisations, we can sense the stillness of bated breath as ACE deliberates on what the so-called ‘arts infrastructure’ is going to look like for the next few years.

A cull on the scale of 2010 can only worsen the prospects of those independent artists and projects outside London that rely on support from the Lottery through Grants for the Arts. When, in 2010, ACE began to discuss more widely the importance of health and other agencies commissioning the arts to provide services, it was mainly with a view to maintaining the delicate ecology of its own, and local authority, support.

Commissioning, in this context defined as a cyclical activity to secure and develop public services, lays stress on the voice of the beneficiary of the service and the equal importance of all parts of the cycle. As such, it should embrace the benefits that engagement in the arts confers.

In the past five years what has changed is that this particular approach to commissioning is now firmly on the agenda of local authorities as well as that of the health sector and ACE. The scale of the challenge for public services is often illustrated by the ‘Graph of Doom’, a bar chart showing how the costs of maintaining the basic standards thought essential to civilised communities will outstrip the means to provide them. As their scope and resources dwindle, commissioning others to deliver what they themselves did in the past is the only option for local authorities.

Questions about commissioning

The questions which Public Services: The Value of Cultural Commissioning, a conference held in Doncaster on 10 June, tried to answer were: how much cultural commissioning is going on currently and could go on in future; how and from whom is it being commissioned; what are the reported benefits (including value for money) for society and for the arts sector; and how does the sector most effectively get involved.

No-one seems to doubt that the arts should be involved in delivering public services. Our own experience confirms what the researchers behind the ACE-funded Cultural Commissioning Programme are telling us. As one of their respondents said: ‘I have seen arts and cultural activities deliver better outcomes than some medically-focussed therapies.’

The report that quotes this health professional, Opportunities for Alignment, provides much material for discussion and some striking headlines. The 8,500 charitable arts and cultural organisations in England are as successful as the rest of the voluntary sector in achieving public funds. However, they secure on average only half of what a typical charity receives every year. Public contracts are only 10% of their income in comparison to 29% for other providers.

You are also more likely to be contracted through a commission if you are a combined arts organisation, and if you are medium-sized rather than very large or very small. There’s scope for growth and greater ambition then, but there’s already a lot going on. Increasingly, commissioners understand the value the arts can provide, and the arts as a sector is making its case with more confidence.

But, as the profile of delegates at the conference seemed to suggest, the relevance of all this might seem doubtful if you are an independent artist. The Programme is focused on organisations, and the figures in the report are authoritative because they are drawn from the statutory returns held by the Charity Commission. The cultural sector, especially in the visual arts, is not so easily defined or accommodated.

Artists’ engagement

At a Turning Point meeting in Yorkshire some years ago, a very experienced commissioner of arts organisations and individual artists helped us to think through the problems artists might face in engaging with the commissioning process. We came up with a two-part solution: the need to equip the arts sector to compete was evident, but equally the commissioners could be supported to adapt their approaches.

It ought to be of advantage to the artist that the commissioning process, at least as it was envisaged in the Marmot Review of Public Health in 2008, emphasises innovative service design, which is a particular strength of many in the sector. Reducing the commissioning process to a procurement contract, and applying too rigid a formula to the whole cycle, limits its chances of bringing benefit to the community and stifles the potential for creative approaches.

The value of negotiation and networks in all this is paramount. Costly though it is, there is no substitute, even in a bureaucratic process like commissioning, for building consensus over the sources and standards to be used for evidence and proof of benefit. Arts organisations with limited capacity may find it demanding to achieve this even with their local council, and yet their assets, skills and knowledge could be of value further afield and to many other commissioners.

Each commissioner will have their own guiding documents and there is no substitute for reading and applying in the light of the relevant Joint Strategic Needs Assessment, or whatever the ‘bible’ is in that context. Furthermore, making an application via an online ‘portal’ is often a finicky and frustrating process. Sometimes an application cannot be made until a pre-qualification questionnaire has been sent and approved. Are the rewards of a satisfying project sufficient compensation? There are many who believe so, but who still wish the playing field was a bit flatter.

A flatter playing field

It is one thing to create a market for cultural commissioning but it is a bigger challenge to make it fair. We heard at the conference from open-minded commissioners who stressed the value of organising, early on in the process, events for commissioning bodies to ‘meet the market’ of potential arts providers. Even so, they initially struggled to find sufficient convincing applications for their funding.

This is where the conference sponsors, Arts Development UK and NCVO, who hold the ACE contract for the Programme, can help. AD:uk could use its influence with local authorities and government to ensure that as arts teams in councils are downsized, the skills for strategic and innovative commissioning are not lost. ACE could make the playing field flatter by aggregating contract opportunities into one website and a single application portal.

In other parts of the public sector where very diverse organisations are competing for opportunities and resources, such as university research, there is an acknowledgement that excellence is not a function of variables such as size, longevity, or even a capacity to fill in forms well.

If the widest possible range of talent from the sector is to be applied to cultural commissioning then it is vital there is standard guidance on the costing of fundamental elements of creative practice. Income from commissions will need to support the core activity of the organisation and this should be acknowledged. The Programme could produce or commission well-researched and accessible toolkits to support the sector and make access to the market easier.

Transparency about costs would mean, on the one hand, that very large organisations cannot win commissions unfairly by ‘hiding’ overheads. Just as valuably, small organisations or independent artists will not be compelled to cut their own throats or others’ by bidding on a marginal cost basis.

A few days before we met in Doncaster the same programme was greeted with an equally packed house in London. This is a movement, and maybe the Cultural Commissioning Programme will prove to be its tipping point.

A Cultural Commissioning Learning Programme will take place from July. Details at www.ncvo.org.uk/ccp-learning-programme