Once again the Arts Council of England is being asked to reduce its budget; the exact amount is not known but the staff has been asked to develop strategies to cut 5 percent of its grants. In addition to cuts already in place for the past four years, this amounts to a reduction of over 30 percent in five years. Many arts organizations are already struggling to survive and this next round of cuts could cause a substantial number of bankruptcies and closures.
This situation is not unique to England, of course. Governments across the globe, and especially in Europe, are making drastic cuts to arts (and other) budgets.
The challenge facing the Arts Council of England is complicated. There are a few arts organizations that receive a disproportionate share of funding. The Royal Opera House, for example, receives £26 million a year, over 7 percent of the ACE budget. The Southbank Centre, Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre, and English National Opera also receive large subsidies.
Does the Arts Council "reduce from the bottom," zeroing out grants to the smallest grantees (effectively putting them out of business), or does it make drastic cuts to the largest organizations, which presumably have the easiest time raising private funds?
This is the conundrum that ACE is trying to solve. Given the visibility of the organizations and the large sums of money involved, this decision will have major artistic, economic and political consequences.
I will not argue the merits of making these cuts. I have written extensively about the economic benefits of arts support and fear that the English government is making a short-term decision that will hurt long-term prosperity. But these cuts will be made, so what to do?
My proposal is to turn every Arts Council grant into a matching grant. Every arts organization would suffer some cut, though the biggest organizations would be most affected. And every organization would have to match a portion of its grant with new or increased gifts from private donors. Again a sliding scale would be used: larger groups would be forced to match a higher percentage of its grant than a smaller organization without fundraising skills or staff. For example, the Royal Opera House might be required to match 50% of its grant while a smaller organization would only have to match 10% of its grant.
This would require all arts organizations to build the fundraising skills they need to survive in a world where governments do not provide the same levels of support as they historically have.
Ideally the Arts Council would provide training in fundraising and associated areas so that the organizations could learn the tools needed to make the match.
Over time, the arts ecology of England would be less dependent on government funding and less affected by changes in political economy.
This is not a pain-free solution, some organizations would still lose all or part of their grants if they did not make their match, but, at least, the total budgets for most arts organizations would not have to shrink and the quality and quantity of their work could be maintained.