by Author Carol Reid

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Will Arts Council England’s new ten-year strategy create a more inclusive and relevant cultural landscape?

Let's create

The Arts Council of England (ACE) has released its new ten-year strategy, Let’s Create. With their annual investments in arts, museums, libraries and music education hubs totaling c.£600 million, the strategy has potential to lay the foundations for radical shift in the cultural fabric of our country. Its buzzwords – creativity, community, relevance, place, innovation, inclusion, collaboration, and diversity – herald a welcome shift from the altogether more lofty ‘great art’ language that was central to the previous strategy.

But the substance on where the money is invested, and where equitability sits within that – i.e. the ways in which levels of need influence the amount and type of investment – is thin on the ground.  Without a radical shift in the way that money is disbursed to communities across the country, then the equality, diversity and inclusion aims of the new strategy will remain unfulfilled.

The strategy is built around three outcomes and four investment principles.  The outcomes are:

  • Creative people – everyone can develop and express creativity throughout their lives
  • Cultural communities – villages, towns and cities thrive through a collaborative approach to culture
  • A creative and cultural country – England’s cultural sector is innovative, collaborative and international.

The investment principles are:

  • Ambition and quality – cultural organisations are ambitious and committed to improving the quality of their work
  • Inclusivity and relevance – England’s diversity is fully reflected in the organisations and individuals that ACE supports and in the culture they produce
  • Dynamism – cultural organisations are dynamic and able to respond to the challenges of the next decade
  • Environmental sustainability – cultural organisations lead the way in their approach to environmental responsibility.

The vision – a country transformed by its culture

The vision provides a clear signal of Arts Council’s intention to democratise arts and culture, stating “we aim to recognise and champion the creative activities and cultural experiences of every person in every town, village and city in this country”. Children and young people receive 15 mentions and significant emphasis: “we will focus a large part of our development role on ensuring that children and young people are able to fulfil their creative potential, and access the highest-quality cultural experiences where they live, where they go to school and where they spend their free time”. And there is more focus than ever before on the social value of cultural investment, especially health and wellbeing outcomes.

This is great news for young people across England, who speak so keenly about the impact of creative activities on their health and wellbeing. But access across the country and for people from different social backgrounds is not equal, as the strategy rightly points out and aims to address. Youth Music’s Sounds of the Next Generation research shone a spotlight on the wide-ranging positive outcomes of music – we hope the strategy means that these outcomes will benefit a much wider range of young people – and in particular those facing the greatest barriers.


Earlier this year, ACE’s Deputy CEO Simon Mellor paved the way for the draft strategy, stating that “Relevance is becoming the new litmus test. It will no longer be enough to produce high quality work. You will need to be able to demonstrate that you are also facing all of your stakeholders and communities in ways that they value”.

At Youth Music we’ve seen time and time again how making the arts relevant to young people opens the door for their engagement, which in turn paves the way to support longer-term positive outcomes. Last year we boldly stated that Mozart should make way for Stormzy in school music education, as we published our four-year longitudinal research study Exchanging Notes. Of course, behind the headlines the argument is more nuanced (most agreed that the ideal scenario would be #StormzyANDMozart) – but the starting point should always be relevance.

Gareth Malone’s latest series of The Choir – set in Aylesbury Young Offenders Institute – is a compelling illustration of this point. Relevance is multi-faceted. It’s not just the art that is being produced, it also applies to those who take part and those who lead activities. Gareth struggled to get more than a handful of participants, and to have any hope of engaging them, he had to start with rapping and a drill beat. He led the work with great tenacity and skill, but I couldn’t help wondering how many more would have taken part if the work was led by someone the young men could more readily identify with?  

A diverse workforce

The Creative Case for Diversity is central to the new strategy: “It is now time to… address the persistent and widespread lack of diversity and inclusivity in cultural organisations’ leadership, governance, workforce and audience”. It states that ACE “will ask organisations who receive regular investment from us to agree targets for how their governance, leadership, employees, participants, audiences and the work they make will reflect the communities in which they work... we will judge organisations for the way in which they reflect and build a relationship with their communities, as well as for the quality and ambition of their work.” This commitment to diversity is essential in breaking down barriers which prevent many people from entering and remaining in the cultural workforce – it’s vital that Arts Council England holds organisations accountable for reaching these targets.

As part of the Creative Case for Diversity framework, organisations will be required to demonstrate how they are listening to the voices of the public (including young people) and their partners. Putting young people’s voices at the front and centre of organisations is key to driving diversity, so it’s welcome news to read that the Arts Council itself will “[listen] and [give] voice to a wide range of people, including young people”.

Overcoming conceptual barriers through clarifying definitions

The strategy makes some important conceptual definitions, broadening the traditional perspectives on quality and excellence, which are an appropriate underpinning framework from which to promote inclusion and diversity.

Quality is not viewed through the one-dimensional lens of artistic output. Rather it is referred to as “creative work and processes, and in the way in which they run their organisations”. So it’s no longer about simply putting on a good show. Going forwards, governance and leadership will be far more central to the quality debate.

Similarly, “excellence can just as readily be found in a village hall as a concert hall – in both the process of participation and in the work that is produced”.

For music education in particular, these are important distinctions. All too often, organisations are judged to be good or bad based on an outdated and culturally-specific judgment of musical performance outputs; and there is a nervousness to diversify practices because of the perceived negative impact it may have on ‘quality’.

Dynamism: an opportunity to drive relevance and diversity

One of the new investment principles is dynamism: being adaptable, entrepreneurial and developing new business models. There is a great opportunity for dynamism to drive organisations to be more diverse and inclusive, as they seek to increase their audiences or participants by becoming more relevant in their offer. An initial strategy horizon scan produced by NESTA talked about a sector where “in the main business models have not been upended, and technologies have not led to a seismic change in the relationship with audiences.”

An equitable approach to funding

Although not a big feature of the strategy and consultation, we know that there are problems of low pay and unstable work opportunities within the arts and cultural sector workforce. There is scope for the Arts Council to send a clear message to the sector about this by signing up as a Living Wage Funder, encouraging funded organisations to pay the real living wage.

The language and intent of the new strategy is clear in its ambition for relevance, inclusion and diversity. Criteria, frameworks and accountability are one side of the mechanism that will create positive change, influenced by the power Arts Council holds in the funding relationship.  

The other side of the coin is the Arts Council itself, how it lives its values within its workforce and ways of operating. And how equitable it chooses to be in making new funding decisions.

The strategy recognises that “there are places and people who have been disadvantaged by historic patterns of public funding”.

If the strategy is to truly shape Arts Council’s investment decisions, then serious questions need to be asked about where the money is invested, and in which organisations. Delivery plans, due to be published over the next decade, will provide more detail on how the strategy will be delivered, and “will pay particular attention to addressing those historic imbalances. Specifically, we will ensure that our programmes meet the needs of those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, D/deaf or disabled people, and those from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds, who have traditionally had least access to our resources”.

Geography matters

The over-concentration of arts funding in London has been well documented over the years and the strategy “will aim for a better balance of investment across the country”.  

But it’s not just a case of London versus the regions. A recent report by New Philanthropy Capital has highlighted that there are fewer charities in more deprived areas – often where their work is most needed. Charity density in Blackpool, for example, is 0.6 per 1,000 people compared to 5.5 per 1,000 people in wealthier places like the Cotswolds. This picture is likely to be reflective of the arts and cultural infrastructure too.

Where the infrastructure is more developed, organisations can be stronger through having a greater pool to draw on in relation to their workforce, governance and partnerships. So if there is a real desire to engage new communities then this uneven playing field needs to be taken into account in funding decisions.

Big versus small

There are signs that Arts Council’s current National Portfolio will be diversified: “Over the next 10 years we want to create an environment in which cultural organisations can more readily change and develop, as well as come and go. By 2030 we will be investing in organisations and people that differ, in many cases, from those that we support today. Some will be members of our current National Portfolio that have evolved to meet the future needs of audiences and artists. Others will be new to us”. However, the approach to portfolio-balancing between large and small organisations is not explicit.

The current music national portfolio is made up of 102 organisations. A massive 76% per cent of the annual £90 million budget goes to just 10 organisations, most of which are orchestras or opera companies with significant assets. The majority own property, have a national profile, and employ significant fundraising and marketing teams. The Royal Opera House – the largest funded music National Portfolio Organisation – receives around £24 million per year, has annual income of £138 million and is sitting on £163 million of assets in the form of freehold premises. This creates an imbalance with much smaller organisations which don’t have the assets to enable them to take risks, or as many staff or volunteers to compete for funds and market their products. There’s a place for these larger organisations in the portfolio, but it’s questionable as to whether they should receive the largest investments.

If the new strategy is to truly reach new and diverse communities then brave and bold decisions will need to be made to redistribute funding away from the giants towards a greater number of smaller, emerging and grassroots organisations. Only then will the ambitious inclusion aims be realised.