The arts divided cannot stand

The arts divided cannot stand

The UK’s growing Black, Asian and minority ethnic population* inevitably means that the racial funding gap** in the arts will widen over time. To close it we either need to double down on cuts to large London cultural institutions or come together as a sector to argue for a significant increase in government funding to the arts.

In November, Arts Council England (ACE) announced a significant increase in the proportion of its NPO budget going to racially diverse organisations, from 2.4% to 8.4%. As a result, from next year ACE will distribute its funding more closely in line with the size of the Black, Asian and minority ethnic population, which at the start of the spending review was c.14%.

But by the time ACE announced its spending plans, updated census data put the UK’s ethnically diverse population at 18.3%, and in London 63.2% of the population identified as being from an ethnic minority. This demographic shift means ACE needs to more than double its investment in ethnically diverse organisations to achieve racial equity.

To pay for this increase, the difficult decisions ACE made to make cuts to major London-based institutions like English National Opera (ENO) and the Royal Opera House would need to be consolidated and further cuts implemented.


Can we close the racial funding gap and continue to fund incumbent institutions? 

ACE has left the door open to future funding of organisations whose grants were reduced or cut in the last spending review. As CEO Darren Henley CBE said,

We’d like to work with ENO so they are in a strong position to reapply for NPO next time, from outside of London with Coliseum as a key part of their provision.”

Reinstating funding to the likes of ENO while continuing to meet its commitment to racially equitable funding would require a significant increase in ACE’s current budget to c.£2.1bn. This is how it breaks down per annum:

  • The amount required to bridge the racial funding gap in NPO funding from 2023 – £44.1m pa
  • The projected increase in the racial funding gap at the next spending review (2026-30) due to continuing growth of the Black, Asian and ethnically diverse population – £4.92m pa
  • The reinstatement of funding to London organisations – c.£22.4m pa
  • Inflation, estimated conservatively at 5% – £22.3m pa

Total: £93.72m p/a

This represents a 21% increase in ACE’s current budget, from the current level of £446m to c.£540m per annum. So, across the next four-year funding period from 2026-30, ACE’s budget would need to exceed £2.1bn. 

A 21% increase in ACE’s budget is ambitious given the economic climate and can only be achieved if the arts stand together in their call for more money. Achieving the funding needed to close the racial funding gap and maintain the financial support to large incumbent arts institutions will not be possible if there is infighting between ethnic groups and/or artforms.


We are all in this together?

There are three years until the next spending review. Unless the arts sector – black and white, classical and non-classical, London and regional – come together to fight for increased funding, we won’t be able to achieve racial equity without further cuts to incumbent organisations.

Within any such collective action, the onus of achieving an additional £93.72m per annum must be shared, and those with most power and influence should shoulder more responsibility.

The recent Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee meeting scrutinising ACE’s spending review demonstrates the power of the large classical music organisations. Through their lobbying, they were able to haul ACE executives in front of a committee of MPs to explain spending cuts to organisations like the ENO and the Welsh National Opera.

No such scrutiny has ever been undertaken regarding the racial funding gap, something which has led to excellent organisations being cut or, worse, excellent new initiatives never seeing the light of day.

In the lead up to the last spending review, large incumbent arts organisations had little if any interest in actively supporting racial equity beyond their walls. They must now lend their political heft to the campaign for racially equitable funding in the arts sector more broadly, while lobbying for increased overall funding.

Given the scale of the ask we must be clear about our priorities. Any increase to ACE’s budget must first be spent on closing the racial funding gap.


Why the racial funding gap needs to be top priority 

As the UK continues to become an ever more multi-racial society, our leaders will inevitably become more diverse. How we give all leaders the funding to build the future charities, social enterprises and businesses they aspire to – and the UK needs – becomes an increasingly pressing question.

Reversing recent cuts to major arts organisations without first achieving racially equitable funding would be to prioritise incumbent classical music institutions – who already receive 80% of ACE’s music budget – over racial equity.

We cannot sweeten the pill or minimise the implications for those who argue for exceptionalism over racial equity. Exceptionalism – sometimes coded as ‘excellence’ – is an outdated device for the exercise of power and privilege. If we are genuinely all in this together then it’s incumbent on large institutions to share limited resources equitably.

So, I call on leaders of the major arts institutions to support the campaign for racially equitable funding in the lead up to ACE’s next spending review. It is their responsibility not only to campaign for the preservation of their own organisations but also to struggle for the right of all communities to reimagine and build the arts organisations of the future.

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to close the racial funding gap in the arts. Our shared belief must be that in doing so we will fully harness the UK’s leadership potential, drive an even more excellent, inclusive, culturally relevant and robust sector.

Now is the time for the major arts institutions to demonstrate that we really are all in this together, by fighting for increased funding, or accepting with equanimity any cuts needed so that resources can be shared fairly. It is this second condition that is important in demonstrating the togetherness or not of the sector.

Accepting cuts is necessary; to close the racial equity gap in the arts is the ultimate sign of unity. Anything else would represent division and an arts sector divided against itself cannot stand.



*We recognise the diversity of individual identities and lived experiences and understand that various terms used in this piece to describe ethnicity are imperfect and do not fully capture the racial, cultural and ethnic identities of people that experience structural and systematic inequality.


** The racial funding gap is the difference between what a funder distributes to ethnically diverse communities and what this funding would be were it in proportion to the UK Black, Asian and minority ethnic population.


This article was first published in Arts Professional on 19 January 2023 as part of a series of articles that promote a more equitable and representative sector.

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I don’t hate the Arts Council (article)

I don’t hate the Arts Council (article)

Through almost monthly blogs, articles and talks on social media over the last two years, I have sought to highlight how Arts Council England (ACE) has consistently failed to achieve racial equity in its distribution of funding. This might be considered slightly obsessive, or as a personal attack based on acrimony. But that isn’t the case.

ACE is an organisation which fascinates me. It seems to be continuously on the brink of transformation around inclusivity, but it never quite makes the leap. From the side lines, I’ve been willing it to make the changes necessary for it to continue to be relevant in the 21st century.

But as they say, ‘it’s the hope that kills you’. But it is ‘hope’. And that doesn’t come from animosity but from a place of relationship. I have a strong, but complex bond with ACE.

A strange relationship

Having initially funded my first project Tribal Tree, they then withdrew funding 7 years later despite the project’s obvious successes. The funding was reallocated to support the redevelopment of the Roundhouse, located just across the road from our building.

I was crushed and unsure what my next career move would be. But it was ACE again, a year later, that sponsored my place on the Clore Leadership Programme. That led to my next project MeWe360 that ACE helped launch with an initial investment of £1m. And eight years later came Create Equity, whose early development ACE also funded.

Having been the cause of an existential trauma, ACE was then a key part of my recovery and growth as a social entrepreneur. But it was also part of my growth as an activist. While at Clore, I carried out research on race, power and identity. That research – a personal enquiry – drives my current thinking on structural inequalities and my motivation to do something about it.

ACE has created this beast that hounds them and continues (at least for now) to fund my projects. It’s a strange relationship: with one hand I gratefully receive its support while with the other I write regular critiques on its inability to fund in a racially equitable way.

Why do I seemingly bite the hand that feeds me? Why not just take the money and be quiet?

Silence, power and racism

My silence would be tantamount to being racist; endorsing a system I know to be racially inequitable for my own benefit.

ACE is the largest funder of the arts in the UK by a long way, with more funding than the other major arts funders combined. Its dominant position means that as well as distributing its own budget (c.£943m in21/22) it exerts considerable influence on how other funders distribute their grants as they regularly support organisations in receipt of ACE funding.

ACE’s scale and ‘financial pull’ means that were it to distribute its funding equitably, a likely outcome would be that all arts funding would become more racially equitable. But the major block is that currently ACE is not able to distribute funding in a racially equitable way. After fulfilling its obligation to fund the major museums, galleries and theatres, it has insufficient money left to do so.

90% of ACE funding is allocated to incumbent institutions. Even if the remaining 10% were diverted to BAME-led organisations, ACE would still not achieve racially equitable funding. This is what I call ‘incumbency bias’ and is not necessarily a problem in itself. My challenge is that ACE remains silent on incumbency bias.

Ibram X. Kendi’s work on anti-racism provides a frame on which to position such organisational silence. To be an anti-racist organisation you must act when faced with processes and procedures that deliver inequitable outcomes. According to Kendi, the act of naming systemic inequalities – simply talking about them – is in itself an anti-racist act.

Silence, he says, is the opposite. ACE’s silence makes it complicit in maintaining a racist system. My almost singular focus on ACE over the last two years is not because they are the only holders of silence, but because they are by far the most powerful.

If I were to remain silent (or inactive) in the face of ACE’s inability or refusal to fund equitably, I would also be complicit. Such silence, according to Kendi, would also be a racist act. Uncomfortable as it is, and I sit far from comfortably when writing these articles, there is no hiding place for ACE, or for me, when it comes to taking an anti-racist position.

Champions of a better system

I am a product – at least in part – of ACE’s various funding programmes over the last 25 years. I could reasonably be considered its poster child; one of its too few racial diversity success stories. But to remain silent would be to abandon all the learning and leadership that ACE has enabled over the past 25 years; it would be to waste the money they have invested in me.

Racial inequity cannot be allowed to stand simply through our complicity or silence. It must be challenged. In this sense, we who call for a fair distribution of ACE funds, who point to its policies and practices that prevent it, who suggest possible solutions, should be seen not as ‘haters’ of ACE but as champions of a better funding ecosystem, of which ACE is a major part.

In the upcoming outcomes of its spending review (October 26th), ACE has another chance to reimagine what great arts organisations of the future might look like. And, just as importantly, who will get to build them.

ACE is on the brink of another opportunity to transform itself. My hope springs eternal – that this time it will distribute at least 7% of its NPO funding to racially diverse organisations and publicly commit to racially equitable funding (14.4%) by 2031. And if it genuinely can’t, then it should take responsibility, as the dominant arts funder in the UK, to say so and to cede some of its overwhelming power to others who can.

This article was first published in Arts Professional

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