This England?

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Dan Anderson comments on This England, the latest report published by the Arts Council.

Here we go again.  The Arts Council has issued another report: This England, how Arts Council England uses its investment to shape a national cultural ecology

It is full of colourful charts and carefully calibrated language that seemingly tell the story about how efficient, effective and geographically balanced its funding is.  It is actually not a bad read, as advocacy documents go – refreshingly free of dense jargon and rich in interesting examples.

Yet again, however, it demonstrates an outrageously cavalier approach to the collection, interpretation and communication of data. I have blogged about this before and it is all part and parcel of the data issues discussed at length in the Museum Moneyball article that I wrote last year.  So I will refrain from a point-by-point riposte.  Fortunately, Liz Hill at Arts Professional has already posted an excellent analysis of the document, with a brilliant evisceration of its ‘bad science’ approach to statistics.  If This England is a decent read, then Hill’s It’s England, Jim, but not as you know it is a must-read for anyone that is getting tired of the statistical claptrap that is so routinely propagated by the arts world.

The ACE document starts out with a worthy and well-written preface that urges us to ‘not return to the oppositional view of the regions versus London’ (p.6) and then spends the next 30 pages spinning and manipulating data to deflect attention from its London-centric status quo.   It is all skilfully deconstructed in Hill’s analysis, but there is one point worth adding.

Touring behaviour by National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) forms a large part of the ACE argument and it is not hard to see why.  The basic argument is that we should not get so hung up on where the recipient organisation is based.  Instead, we should focus on where it tours.

“If a company is touring, it doesn’t matter to the audience where its base is. These companies fulfil a critical role in bringing work to areas with low arts and culture provision.” (p.21)

This assertion is at the heart of the report, presumably because the supporting statistic then lands with the weight of a pair of aces on a card table:  “London-based National Portfolio organisations retain one of the smallest proportions of toured activity within their regional boundaries” (p.21).

The inference that we are meant to draw is that it doesn’t matter if a majority of funding goes to London-based organisations, so long as those organisations then tour that content to other parts of the country.  Hill rightly makes the point that – in fact – much of that content actually tours outside the country anyway.

Hold on though.  Why are we even meant to assume that being a net exporter of content is unambiguously a good thing?  This presupposes that the only reason for touring is to engage with a broader audience.  It isn’t.  For many organisations, an important reason for touring is a financial one.  To justify investment in the high fixed costs of a major production, touring is sometimes the only way that a small-market theatre company can generate the earnings needed for financial sustainability.  To do that, they need places to tour with large potential markets.

Being a net exporter of content could be interpreted as the magnanimity of London-based institutions bringing culture to the regions.  It is true that taking War Horse from the South Bank to Sunderland could be as much a policy decision as it is a financial one.  But the data could equally be interpreted as London being a closed shop to regional productions – which it virtually is.  The vast majority of quality theatre produced around the country cannot transfer to London venues.  The commercial theatres of the West End are prohibitively expensive to rent, while the subsidised spaces of the NPOs are so densely packed with their own extensive programme (which is itself a function of their subsidy) that regional productions can’t get space in the diary.  Regional theatre thus stays in the regions, struggling to find time or space in England’s richest market.

This is problematic.  While some of the Arts Council’s published goals are based on audience engagement and access, it is also supposed to foster ‘excellence’ in the sector, as well ‘resilience’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘leadership’.  In short, it has both demand-side and supply-side objectives.  No doubt audiences in the regions would welcome the opportunity to see the world famous productions that originate in London.  But I’m sure that actors and artists working in regional venues are just as keen to be seen in London.  In this case, ACE chooses to interpret data purely from the demand side, probably because that is what paints the picture it wants to show – i.e. that supporting organisations in London is to the benefit of the whole country.

Whether or not that is true seems hardly relevant.  The way that ACE skips back and forth across the line between advocacy and analysis only serves to undermine the case.  Its credibility is compromised by the way it regularly twists and bends available data to serve a political agenda.  The issue here is not about a crude ‘rebalancing’ of funding between London and the rest.  It is about the way that the arts world monopolises and obfuscates data and then tries to tell us how that data should be interpreted.

Lest there be any doubt, the report’s concluding section helpfully spells out for us precisely how the ACE should be evaluated:

We will be judged by the success measures we have set out in Great art and culture for everyone; by the data produced by the Taking Part surveys, by audience and organisational data from our partners in the sector and in government, and by the metrics we are developing with the sector to fully capture the quality of cultural experiences. … We will be judged through an analysis of the areas of benefit across our whole investment and development approach, and we should consider the effects of all our funding and development, from Music hubs through higher education to our Creative employment programme… We should be judged on the strength and health of that overall national cultural ecology that our strategy has been designed to support. (p.35).

This would all be fine if the organisation could be trusted to ‘develop metrics’ and interpret data without the strident bias so nakedly revealed by every new report and press release.

So here’s an idea: no more reports.  Just release the data.  Let others be the judge of how the ‘national cultural ecology’ is being shaped by ACE investment.  Be confident that – armed with raw, unfiltered data – there will be just as many people fighting for the arts as fighting against them.  And be assured that they will probably do a better job of it.