‘Everyone will be far poorer’: England’s art organisations respond to ‘short-sighted and foolish’ national funding cuts


Art institutions that had their Arts Council England (ACE) funding sharply reduced earlier this month say they will need to rethink their programmes as a result. One of the biggest casualties was the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, part of the University of Cambridge Museums consortium.

The museums’ ACE 2023-26 funding allocation represents a “dismaying” 50% cut, down from £1,212,754 to £617,534 annually, says a Fitzwilliam spokesperson. It has not yet been determined how this cut will be applied within the museums group and the team that supports the consortium’s work and operations, she adds.

Crucially, she stresses that ACE funding has not just facilitated the roles of the Fitzwilliam’s engagement teams. “It has also ensured the delivery of their wide range of innovative, highly regarded work in local communities with wellbeing and schools’ programming, both in the enormously unequal region of Cambridgeshire and beyond.”

The Fitzwilliam is now urgently seeking alternative additional funding to avoid having to cut back its learning and outreach work.

For its part, ACE has outlined why it cut the University of Cambridge Museums’ funding. “We decided to make a reduced offer that has given us the opportunity to invest in a broader, more balanced range of organisations delivering exciting arts, culture and creative opportunities for more people, in more places across the South East,” ACE told the consortium.

ACE distributes money to arts organisations across the UK. The total £446m a year package will provide funding for 990 organisations, including 82 museums (28 of which are new grant recipients) and 159 visual arts organisations (23 new).

Out of the blue

Meanwhile ACE funding for Camden Art Centre (CAC) in north London was reduced from £919,673 (2018-22, per annum) to £600,000 (2023-26). Martin Clark, the centre’s director, says: “We’ve been expanding our community programmes working with underserved communities not just in Camden but importantly in bordering Brent, which was a priority place for ACE this year. We’ve been working in an embedded way in Brent for more than ten years. ActionSpace, the disability arts charity, has been our partner… in possibly the longest running special educational needs programme centred in Brent, but because it’s delivered in our studios and spaces here it’s counted as activity in Camden.

“The cuts came completely out of the blue for us. We have an ongoing relationship with ACE; we understood from regular feedback, and the feedback on our application itself, that everything we were doing was exceptional and absolutely on track, including our financial situation, our governance and our work around diversity. When we saw the new ten-year Let’s Create [ACE] strategy, it felt like it was tailor-made for Camden.”

The shift in funding was introduced by the previous culture secretary Nadine Dorries, who tweeted earlier this year: “Over the last few decades, an overwhelming amount of money has gone to organisations based in London, while other parts of the country haven’t received their fair share.”

She asked ACE to move £32m of its regular funding out of London and provide an extra £43.5m annually for three years for 78 towns and cities that were considered by the UK government to be culturally underfunded.

But the new funding arrangement has drawn criticism for the so-called subsequent “levelling down” of London. A senior source at ACE tells us that it “was instructed to cut a huge sum from London, and pretty much every art form suffered”. An anonymous trustee at a London institution adds: “We were the victim of our postcode. There was a clear direction from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in what they [ACE] were expected to do.”

Other organisations have seen their ACE funding maintained or increased, including the Jewish Museum London, South London Gallery and Autograph ABP. An ACE spokeswoman adds that the visual arts portfolio in London has seen a 3% increase in investment funding in this round—around £500,000—and an increase in the number of organisations supported. London is still the most funded region, receiving £152m a year, which represents around a third of total funds.

‘Robbing Peter to pay Paul’

However, Chris Smith, the former culture secretary in Tony Blair’s Labour government, says: “You can’t level up by robbing Peter to pay Paul. If you diminish the fantastic arts organisations in London, you diminish the seedbed of the arts across the entire country.

“Whether it’s English National Opera, the Donmar Warehouse, or in the visual arts the ICA or Camden Art Centre, it makes no sense at all to cut or remove funding. You remove the places that have nurtured talent over the years, talent that has gone on to be the lifeblood of the arts far beyond the boundaries of London. As a result of these short-sighted and foolish decisions from the Arts Council, everyone will be far poorer.”

Tonya Nelson, ACE’s director for London, says the aim has been to support a broad range of organisations and art forms in every corner of London, ensuring that investment goes into places that, historically, have been underserved including London’s outer boroughs. ACE is also offering “bridging” funding to help unsuccessful organisations “transition to their lower funding base” under its Transform scheme.

But the perfect storm of a recession and exorbitant living costs have added to the sector’s concerns. Clark says: “We’ve had an outpouring of support from artists, audiences and peers, but unfortunately we can’t just make that shortfall up… given that it’s compounded with other rising costs.”

Some institutions are nonetheless devising radical strategies for moving forwards without essential ACE core funding. “We’re re-evaluating our project proposals in line with the funding we’ve received and what the impact means for artistic plans and future business model,” says a spokesperson for the Southbank Centre in London, whose funding has been reduced from £18.4m (2018-22) to £16.8m (2023-26). She adds, though, that while the centre is looking at where adjustments may need to be made in terms of scale and project timelines, “we remain committed to delivering our core visual arts programme [at the Hayward Gallery] with the resources we currently have”. As part of its pandemic response, the Southbank Centre moved to a “five-day model”, holding events from Wednesday to Sunday only. That will now continue.

Asked if private fundraising targets have been increased for the Hayward in the light of the new funding challenges, the spokesperson says: “We’re exploring all avenues of funding and have very ambitious targets built into our business model.”

ACE officials have also perhaps failed to recognise how the fortunes of the visual arts are interlinked. Clark says: “The sector is an ecosystem—we all work together, locally and nationally. Five artists in the Strange Clay: Ceramics in Contemporary Art exhibition at the Hayward Gallery [until 8 January] all did residencies at CAC including Jonathan Baldock and Lubna Chowdhary.

“There are no winners. In this climate, even standstill funding is incredibly challenging. The idea that money is being moved out of any region at the moment, London included—with the cost of living crisis and soaring inflation—means things will be completely unsustainable across the sector.”


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