UK Public funding for literature 2008
Public funding of the Arts has hit the press again. It matters to us amateur
because the magazines we submit to are sometimes state funded. Also we get information from state-aided sources.
I think there are 3
main issues, the first 2 of which are largely beyond our power to influence
Of course a lot of politics and
bureaucracy is involved at all these levels, which puts art people off - too
many forms and targets. Just as difficult to cope with is the rate of policy
change and the unpredictability of future support. In the past to get any money a poetry
magazine might have to show a commitment to the disabled, ethnic minorities,
the semi-literate, international issues, or the community.
Now the rules are changing and several groups are losing their funding
altogether. It's not always easy to discover why - the groups are unlikely
to say that they've been warned in the past for not keeping their promises,
and the Art Council isn't always forthcoming.
- How much money should the Arts get? - some people think that
the Arts should be self-supporting. At the other extreme Eire proportionally supports the Arts
far more generously than England does. Currently Arts Council England
distributes £600 million per year. About £150 million of this comes from
the lottery which also funds Olympic-related activities.
- How much of the Arts money should go towards Literature? -
Literature is lucky in a way. It doesn't have Opera Houses to maintain,
and (unlike Opera) it's a profit-making activity. But the fact that
high-street bookshops survive shouldn't mask the problems that some literary genres
Because of changes in the publishing world, profits from the mainstream are
less likely to be gambled on new talent nowadays.
- In 2002 "fewer than 25 books of short stories were produced by mainstream
UK publishers. And two thirds were by writers from abroad."
- "A recent Arts Council study notes that only four per cent of the total
sales of the best-selling 1000 poetry books in 1998-1999 were of contemporary poetry."
- How should literature be funded? - There are 3 standard approaches
- Increase the audience - in particular, reach out to new audiences
- Improve writers - widen the base of the pyramid by getting more
people to write. Also help promising individuals
- Fund the middle-men - publishers, festival organisers, campaign
groups and information providers
It's hard to know who to believe. In January 2008 for example the director of Arts
Council England's literature programme said "our funding proposals will see a
significant increase in investment in the literature sector over the next three years"
which sounds like good news. However, she went on to say
It's good to know that there are winners
as well as losers - but the news of increased funding came as a surprise to the Bloodaxe editor who'd
been told he was only getting an increase in line with inflation. The final point needs
to be studied carefully too. Because of the Olympics, the Lottery funding is
precarious, and it's worrying that literature's so exposed to this risk.
Translation and marketing don't create new work and can easily end up as
initiatives to teach English to ethnic minorities, prisoners, NHS clients, etc.
- "Two organisations for which we propose increased funding are Tindal Street
Press and Bloodaxe."
- "the literature sector also receives
significant funding [50%] through the lottery-funded Grants for the Arts programme,
with significant funding allocated to support translation programmes and
creative marketing initiatives."
So who are the literary losers? Should we care?
London Magazine's editor has resigned because the 275 year-old magazine is
losing its 30k grant. Arcadia, Dedalus (from Sawtry) and Anvil publishers as
well as "Creative Arts East" are under threat too - nothing as dramatic as
the "lights going out" in theatres, but worrying all the same.
London Magazine didn't appeal. Anvil and Arcadia did, and had their grant
at least partially restored. Dedalus appealed but it didn't help. The
figures in Feb 2008 were that 185 group lost all their money, 27 groups
had reduced grants, 700 groups stayed about the same and 211 group's grants were substantially increased.
In the "Arts Council England" (ACE) review of 2007 (free online) I
saw only 4 mentions of literature. The event they seem proudest of
is the "Poet in Residence" for the 2006 Ashes series - i.e. a poet got a
holiday in Australia to watch cricket.
Another mention concerned a project that was praised because it
helped improve basic skills of school-children.
But what about quality? Well, that issue is partly the cause of the current
In 2007 after discussion with the public and the arts community ACE concluded
they should give more priority to innovation. The Mcmaster
Review (Jan 2008) looked at "How the system of public sector support for
the arts can encourage excellence, risk-taking and innovation" and suggested
the setting up of "a new scheme for the ten organisations with the most innovative ambition to receive ten year funding to further that ambition.". This may help with one of the troubles with innovative work - that artists might take a while to develop, and audiences might take a while to understand. The report also suggests that self-assessment and peer-review are the ways to assess excellence (p.21).
A consequence of this shift is that fewer organisations are likely to be
funded, though they'll be funded better. Some individual writers will still be state-supported, but where will they publish their short stories? One answer is "online", but what's the point of publishing if no-one reads let alone buys?
When a genre is facing extinction state funding can sometimes be the only hope. The
"Save Our Short Story campaign" (now Story) was started in 2002, and has served as a focus for
short-story activity. Support for the Poetry Society and National Poetry Day is
an economic way to keep the endangered genre of poetry in the public eye.
In any case
the consensus seems to be that things will be pretty grim for years to come for writing that's uncommercial, not to do with Film, and doesn't benefit community groups.
Updated February 2008