On 17 March the bids went in: les jeux sont faits; rien ne va plus. Arts leaders all over the country finally got some sleep, and then turned their attention back to running their organisations. Over at Arts Council England (ACE), staff were preparing for weeks of reading, sifting, and judging dozens of national portfolio organisation (NPO) funding applications.

ACE has a difficult job. While its own budget and staff have been cut, rumour has it that most organisations have asked for increases of around ten per cent. Greedy or what? Unrealistic certainly. On top of that, ACE is under pressure from the regions, who have cried foul, and from London, where much of the growth is.

Then they face some tough questions, the answers to which will send out powerful signals. Should they reward those local authorities that have continued to support the arts, or do they try to shore things up in places where local authorities have made cuts? Should they give to those magnificent cultural palaces that they brought into being through the lottery – or is it time for some of them to stand on their own feet a bit more? And how can they support new and invigorating companies without endangering the regular clients?

Dividing up the pie

That’s no doubt what’s going through the collective ACE mind. Here, though, are some thoughts on what ACE should be doing.

First, it should be thinking hard about whether the current method of dividing up the pie needs to be scrapped altogether. The system is over-centralised, too stuck in the past and, worst of all, encourages competition (albeit one where the winners and losers are almost known in advance) instead of collaboration. We need a system that encourages consortia bids, with all the arts organisations in a town or a borough working together, pooling their resources and their energies. The result would be cost savings, plus a better service for the public.

Second, it should live up to its strapline: ‘great art for everyone’. ACE is, after all, the arts council, so it should be championing, and supporting, what it judges to be great art. If it’s going to do that it needs more confidence in its own artistic decisions and better ways of explaining its judgments. It needs to get beyond the clichés of transformation and excitement, and tell people in clear language why it thinks this or that gallery or theatre is doing something special.

It should also be helping those arts organisations that really do reach ‘everyone’. ACE needs to be far more rigorous with its clients when it comes to the demand side of the equation. Audience satisfaction surveys are not good enough – that just tells us about the status quo. What’s needed is some real soul-searching about why, after all these years and all that money, the vast majority of people in England remain indifferent to the arts. ACE should be supporting those companies, and only those companies, that work with, and are respected by, their communities not just their audiences.

Muddle in the middle

The end result of the current way of doing things is a lot of muddle in the middle: on the one hand trying to make people like stuff they don’t like; and on the other funding mediocre work to keep the show on the road. It all amounts to a bit of an existential crisis for ACE. And if it doesn’t, it should.

Is it right for ACE to continue to be, essentially, a funding organisation, doling out the money in a cherished and unquestioned ceremony, much as the Queen each year dispenses Maundy money to a handful of symbolically poor pensioners?

Or do we now need something that is more akin to a development agency for arts organisations, helping them to adapt to the new harsh climate of a post-social democratic, cash-only, cuts-ridden, market-oriented society; helping them acquire the skills, attitudes and investment they need to survive in a world of brand management, sweated IP assets and heavy marketing?

Should ACE become a development agency for arts audiences rather than arts organisations, weaning the masses off Britain’s Got Talent to Britain’s Got Britten or Britain’s Got Brit Art (along with an occasional genuflection to more messy vernacular culture)?

Or should it be more dispassionate – a marketing agency for the arts, looking to identify a more balanced product range that meets the tastes and aspirations of the varied demographics, the tribes and audience segments that make up the tax-paying, lottery-playing providers of its budget?

Should it, instead of being chased by What Next?, be doing the chasing – aiming to be less of an institution with the inevitable inward-looking, process-driven, key performance indicators-riddled, structure-heavy obsessions of any large, long-lived public body, and become more of a movement, with activist cells to spread the love and allocate the funds? A world run by activist cells, though, is unlikely to be any more accountable or equitable than a world run by a professional bureaucracy.

Or could it be a change agent of a very different sort, working with local authorities, Whitehall departments, community organisations and commercial investors to re-shape the public realm, echoing the famous citizenship pledge of the ancient Athenians to “leave our city more beautiful and more prosperous than we found it”? That would be a good ambition for a country whose leading politicians are never shy of asserting that it is the most creative nation on Earth.

More on a-n.co.uk:

Towards Plan B: a different approach to public funding of the arts – Three Johns and Shelagh argue for a radical new approach to supporting the arts