What is the Arts Council for?

As Alan Davey moves on to his new role at BBC Radio 3 – congratulations to him – we welcome Darren Henley as Chief Executive of Arts Council England. This change provides a chance to reflect on new ways of thinking about leadership of ACE, which is such important part of the landscape for arts and artists across the country.

As part of the reimagining, which many arts organisations have had to do over the past five years, we have spent some time in trying to think about not only our mission but also the way in which we describe ourselves and where we put our intellectual and people resources.

I’d like to posit three key things for the new CEO to think about in the way ACE can best use the privilege of leadership and the responsibility to lead arts investment and practice for the future.

It seems to me that ACE needs to be an advocate for the arts; a supporter of innovation for artists and audiences alike; and an administrator of public money. The key question is where the balance in these three functions lies.

Advocacy for the arts is clearly crucial, and the relative success of the last spending round is a tribute to the work which was done with politicians and officials in Whitehall. This advocacy is obviously going to be needed in the future as austerity continues and possibly becomes evermore deeply felt. But of course advocacy for the arts isn’t just about money from the public purse; it’s about celebrating the joyfulness and the effect which arts can have on every community in the country. Finding ways to consistently represent this is something which is integral to our national identity. So maybe there’s a need to think about it more interesting ways of advocating for the arts?

Innovating is clearly at the heart of creativity and of the work which ACE  does. However we in the sector know that innovation is not synonymous with success and we all know that we have to balance our approach to our work and our organisations. We will always look to find new ways of working with artists and with audiences which will allow them to experience new things and develop in their artistic practice. ACE is clearly committed to innovation but does the administrative role below help or hinder in this process?

As an awarder of public funds, ACE needs to have a range of solid administrative processes and to be able to demonstrate to Government and its agencies value for money. It might be fair to say that the current NPO round and some of the processes required in order to receive funding suggests that the balance towards administration has now swung too far. Things such as the draft gagging clause in the agreement all suggest that the ambition is for things not to go wrong as opposed to celebrating the wonderful and exciting outcomes and things which go right.

But I may have got it all wrong. What do you think?

Jane Earl, Chief Executive, Rich Mix