A welcome change of direction: Arts Council England’s Strategy 2020-30

Earlier this summer, Arts Council England published a ‘Draft Strategy for Consultation’. Covering the ten years from 2020 to 2030, this is a high-level document – the broad lines, but not the detail of priorities or spending plans. That said, the broad lines mark a decisive break with 70 years of Arts Council thinking. Here is the vision that ACE is setting for itself:

We want England to become a country where the creativity of each of us is valued and given the chance to flourish […] When we have the time and the tools to develop our own creative potential we feel fulfilled and empowered.’

Arts Council England, Shaping the Next Ten Years (2019)

To hear the Arts Council adopt the language that community artists have used for decades is genuinely startling. We’re used to being told that our work might be worthy, but that it lacks excellence and artistic value. Not always so bluntly, it’s true, but ACE’s consistent lack of curiosity in this restless art was telling. Now, I read that,

‘With this strategy, Arts Council England acknowledges the breadth and depth of culture in this country and sets out to champion the cultural lives and creative acts of every person living here.’

Every person – Put out more flags! I mean no sarcasm or cynicism. I wholeheartedly welcome the Arts Council’s new vision. There are parts of the strategy I’d argue with, of course, but they are unimportant compared to the fundamental change of direction set out here.

‘By 2030 we anticipate that we will be investing in organisations and people that differ, in many cases, from those that we support today. […] Together they will reflect the diversity of our country and will work in ways that are valuable to, and valued by, their communities, creative practitioners and partners.’

The Arts Council is courageous in recognising the huge social, cultural, environmental and even political changes that are transforming the country it exists to serve. It is brave too in proposing a profound change to its principles and criteria of success: it is long overdue. What will follow? There have already been mutterings from those who think that ACE is losing its way, and the arguments to come will be tough, if the words of this strategy are to guide real change. I don’t underestimate how difficult this will be. I’ve always thought of the Arts Council like Gulliver tied down on the beach of Lilliput by a thousand tiny ropes. Breaking free of the existing pattern of obligations and expectations will be painful, but at least this document gives good reasons why it must be done. What matters now is how it will be translated into action. ACE will need help from those who support its vision in the years to come.