BY Laura Robertson in Opinion | 15 NOV 22

What’s Next For England’s Cultural Institutions After Major Funding Changes?

Following Arts Council England's recent National Portfolio Organization announcement, Laura Robertson investigates the state of English arts funding

BY Laura Robertson in Opinion | 15 NOV 22

‘The decision is unfathomable. Our productions reflect who we are […] and how we relate to each other.’ With 25 years’ experience, Annette Burghes, Executive Director of Liverpool’s Collective Encounters theatre, understands how to run a successful charity. As of last week, however, Burghes and her team were devastated to hear that they will lose 25 percent of their annual income, following Arts Council England’s (ACE) decision to drop them as a National Portfolio Organization (NPO) after 14 years of regular investment. The loss will undoubtedly impact their outreach projects, including their poetry, drama and music classes for dementia carers, which one participant described as ‘the future’ of arts training.

Collective Encounters is just one of the numerous English organizations and associated freelancers left reeling by the recent NPO announcement, in what has become a high-stakes scrap for government funds. The news – already delayed by a week, owing to another government reshuffle in late October – comes during what the housing charity Shelter has termed ‘the worst cost-of-living crisis in the UK since the 1950s’. For this article, I contacted 22 NPOs – a broad range of combined arts, dance, literature, museums, music, theatre and visual arts providers – that have been impacted both positively and negatively by ACE’s decisions.

Museum training and consultancy agency Arts&Heritage, founded in Northumberland in 2009, lost 75 percent of their annual funding in one fell swoop. Executive Director Stephanie Allen tells me that being removed from the portfolio was a ‘shock’, especially considering that her team has ‘over-performed’ through the COVID-19 crisis. ‘We’re getting our heads around it. What else can you do?’ she says. ‘To be honest, we’ve done brilliantly: we’re financially stable, we’ve had projects all over the country, good reserves … We didn’t expect this outcome.’

So, why has ACE terminated specialists like this? Put simply: there isn’t enough money to go round. While the UK Government’s Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) estimated the value of the industry at GB£115.9 billion in 2019, this year ACE have received just GB£446 million per year to re-invest. The arts are an oft-lauded but underfunded national export.

Arts&Heritage film still University of Reading
Chisato Minamimura preparing to shoot 'Hesychia', a project supported by Arts&Heritage, 2022. Courtesy: Arts&Heritage and the Ure Museum of Archaeology, University of Reading

As part of an excruciating live conversation with ACE Chair Sir Nicholas Serota, on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row on 7 November, Stuart Murphy, Chief Executive Officer of the English National Opera (ENO), said he was ‘bemused, baffled’ to hear they’d been axed, and expected to relocate from London to Manchester in just five months’ time, despite glowing ACE reports on diversity, young audiences and modernization. Baritone Sir Bryn Terfel Jones, CBE, has launched a petition demanding that ENO be reinstated as an NPO with immediate effect, or risk ‘the careers of singers, musicians, technical staff, creatives and other skilled workers both permanent and freelance’.

ENO is one of 24 London-based organizations – including Clore Leadership Programme, Improbable theatre and Orchestras for All – who will relocate, in an unprecedented shift of culture out of the capital to other parts of the country. As a knock-on effect of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s 2019 election promise to ‘level-up’ regions in economic decline, ACE and the DCMS have spent GB£43.5 million across 78 ‘Levelling Up for Culture Places’, spending GB£43.5 million on a list of areas from Portsmouth to County Durham.

Serota defended the ‘very difficult’ decision, saying ACE had ‘decided we should not spread the misery across every company in the country, we should actually identify those companies that we felt could survive a withdrawal of their funding, and on which we had faith that they had the ability to respond’. On how they’d been ‘under instruction’ from an unspecified Secretary of State to move money out of London – when they are meant to be, according to their own charter, ‘at arm’s length’ from government – Serota responded: ‘In broad terms, it’s taxpayers’ money [...] But it’s up to ACE to take the decisions about the detail.’

Such faith is unlikely to bring comfort to those who must now consider downsizing or closing altogether. In their press release, ACE declared this the ‘most competitive-ever NPO round’, and ‘unable to invest in all of the organizations who made strong applications’, selected just 990 from 1,730 applicants. The good news is that the number of NPOs has increased, from 831 in 2018-22, and 670 in 2015-18. In all, 276 new NPOs were revealed, including multi-arts centre Arts at the Mill in Wigan’s Old Courts, Future Yard music venue in Birkenhead, Shakespeare North Playhouse in Prescot, parkland-set Whitaker Museum and Gallery in Rossendale, and artist-led Turf Projects in Croydon.

The London Coliseum home to English National Opera
The London Coliseum, current home of the English National Opera, 2018. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

My sources – many of whom asked to be quoted anonymously, due to a perceived fear of stigma that may influence other potential funders – slammed ACE for their ‘inaccessible’ NPO application design, which takes years to plan, research and edit, and is ‘wholly inadequate’ as a way to assess quality. Several experienced bid writers described a ‘formidable’ process: months of training sessions and videos for staff to disseminate; multiple, complex and ‘contradictory’ guidelines; the ‘confusing’ addition of Investment Principles Support Organization as an alternative option to NPO; ‘broken’ spreadsheets; and a ‘terrible’ online interface.

One anonymous source called the NPO rejection ‘demoralizing’, adding that it ‘nearly broke’ her small team outside of London, who have been the ‘epitome of resilience’. Her mainly part-time colleagues have been ‘brought to their knees’ with the amount of work needed to apply for, and then lose, NPO funds. ‘Despite all the guidance, you still find yourself second-guessing what they’re asking for,’ she says. ‘It’s been the most explicit framework to date: everything has to be re-written through this rigid structure. What you lose is the ability to talk about a project through your passion for it, what the actual experience is.’

Another source, however, believed ACE’s new ‘outcome rather than output’ focus made a positive change from ‘bean-counting and continual growth’. She also commented that ACE are swamped with paperwork, leaving very little time to ‘work on the ground’. Another had not seen her local ACE Relationship Manager – a key mediator and advisor – for the entire two years it took her organization to apply.

Chrysalis Arts Development in Yorkshire – which specializes in supporting communities in rural locations that face internet black-spots, unaffordable housing, unreliable public transport and loneliness – is also feeling the ‘spread’ of ‘misery’ aforementioned by Serota. Executive Director Christine Keogh reveals that Chrysalis lost NPO status, despite being ‘in a very strong position to deliver the aims of Let’s Create’, ACE’s ten-year strategy. ‘The appraisal of our work and proposed programme seems scant and the decision not to fund us focuses almost entirely on insufficient data,’ she tells me. Their professional development opportunities for artists at all career stages will take the brunt, says Keogh, as will new lodging: ‘without core funding, we are unsure whether we can continue to operate the building, let alone offer artists free accommodation and a residency fee’.

Autograph ABP London
Rivington Place, home to Autograph ABP who received an 'uplift' in Arts Council England NPO funding. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Reading between the lines, it seems that many companies are simply not fitting the NPO mould as ACE have recast it: those who take slow or long-term approaches; those who are unable to evidence ‘legacy’ data; those who spread out their work across a large geographic area, nationally or virtually (rather than in a defined locale); or those who lie within ‘cold spots’ (wealthy regions with pockets of poverty).

Questions remain over how ACE will manage former NPOs who may face reverting back to short-term, intense turnaround, project-by-project grants – a depressing stagnation for evolving arts spaces at a time when everyone is feeling acute financial and emotional strain. Will institutions continue to employ their staff? Will they repeat popular programmes with proven records of success? What are the ramifications for people crying out for ‘levelling-up’, who now live in an area without a secure NPO?

As Burghes reminds me, arts and culture workers bring skills, confidence and hope to some of the lowest-paid and most vulnerable people in our society. Her theatre, she tells me, is ‘drawing attention to the vast social, political and economic inequality that exists in the country, and I can only surmise these are uncomfortable messages for those in power right now’.

Main image: Donna Huanca, 'CUEVA DE COPAL', 2022, installation view. Courtesy: Arnolfini; photograph: Lisa Whiting Photography 

Thumbnail: Alma Heikkilä
, 'Forest: Wake this Ground', 2022, installation view. Courtesy: Arnolfini; photograph: Lisa Whiting Photography 

Laura Robertson is an arts editor and writer based in Liverpool. She is co-founder of