UK Public funding for literature 2008

Public funding of the Arts has hit the press again. It matters to us amateur writers 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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 have - Because of changes in the publishing world, profits from the mainstream are less likely to be gambled on new talent nowadays.
  3. How should literature be funded? - There are 3 standard approaches
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.

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.

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 debate. 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
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Tim Love