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Artillery Row

Artistic freedom is worth the risk

Arts Council England’s revised guidance offers cause for concern over freedom of expression

Arts Council England’s (ACE) revised guidance to its 985 regularly funded organisations saw an outcry in the arts this week, many perceiving the heavy hand of state-sanctioned censorship.  Whilst my organisation Freedom in the Arts, co-founded with choreographer Rosie Kay last year, believe the guidance will have a chilling effect on the sector, there is nuance to “unpack” here.  

The guidance stipulates how organisations should manage reputational risk, broadly defined as anything from fraud, equality issues, controversial art and “overtly political or activist” activity.

Organisations must now report potential reputational risk to ACE, the very body nervously holding the purse strings. So it’s understandable that arts leaders feel jumpy.

The process, not entirely explicit, is relevant. ACE staff make scored assessments of organisations’ risks. The overall Arts Council risk is regularly shared with ACE’s paymaster, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.  

Given regularly funded organisations account for £458.5 million a year, it is not unreasonable for a guardian of public money to check the risk to the taxpayer. Indeed, in 2017 DCMS’s own tailored review recommended that ACE “would benefit from more robust assessment” of its “appetite” for risk. In the main, such assessments tend to focus on the financial position. It is after all a risky business running an arts organisation.

So what’s the problem? Now that risk assessments are shared with organisations, a new and welcome development since their instigation in 2016, there is rightly more scrutiny on the accuracy of each report. Arts trustees have woken up to the fact that these pithy, ongoing analyses are a measure of how their management is perceived by the funder.

More importantly, the “context” has changed.  Arts organisations can now find themselves at the heart of charged political debates, often ones they’ve instigated themselves.  It is not for nothing that Charity Commission chair Orlando Fraser recently warned charities “that they have a responsibility [to campaign, in line with their charitable objects] with respect, tolerance and consideration for others”. Witness the pickle the People’s History Museum found itself in, when it suggested it would not host a gender critical human rights organisation and immediately faced possible litigation. Is it any wonder the Arts Council wants to know in advance if taxpayers’ money may be at risk?

But can ACE be trusted not to meddle with the art? Despite ACE stating that “for the avoidance of doubt, we expect all [organisations] to support freedom of expression”, the evidence is not convincing. Musician Jonny Best notes that ACE doesn’t appear to have an artistic freedom policy — disappointing for an organisation founded 78 years ago.  Let’s face it, the newly formed United Nations managed to publish its declaration to artistic freedom in 1948. Without such a commitment how can we trust ACE given its censorious tone? 

And how will the guidance be applied? The requirement to report reputational risk to ACE may not be met with the balanced approach one might hope. ACE’s own Inclusion Review, published last September, noted that staff did not see themselves as impartial bureaucrats, observing “colleagues repeatedly presented themselves as part of the creative and cultural sector first and government second (if at all)”. In April 2022, even the Deputy Director prioritised activism over administration when he stated to a meeting of over 400 staff that he did not support funding the LGB Alliance because of their perceived beliefs, and reflected: 

I am a really strong believer in freedom of expression .…And on the other hand, I do think that there is a responsibility for all of those in receipt of public money to be thinking very clearly and carefully about their responsibilities and how they use that in terms of risk management .. of the offence and harm that they can do to communities.  

With that level of ambivalence at the top, what hope is there of fair treatment down the ladder?

Freedom in the Arts co-founder Rosie Kay experienced the harsh reality of a rising Arts Council risk rating when in 2021 the Rosie Kay Dance Company faced unfounded internal allegations against Kay, its artistic director. The company eventually collapsed. Kay explains that the funders’ scored risk rating put her artistic work and even personal beliefs under the microscope of trustees:

I saw our risk rating shoot up from a ‘minor’, low rating, meaning well-managed, no problems to ‘major risk’. Once trustees and funders get together, they bypass the artist.  Artistic complexity, such as the work I was making, a production of Virgina Woolf’s Orlando, becomes a reputational issue. The risk process fundamentally blurs the boundaries between governance and artistic freedom. This new guidance now makes every artistic decision a possible board matter, in which the artist’s voice is rarely heard. 

The political impartiality of venues is there to enable individual artistic freedom, not remove it

This leaves the question, what art is not being made, funded, commissioned or collected?  Back in 2013 Index on Censorship’s conference Taking the Offensive identified self-censorship rather than state, as the main chilling factor in the arts, a problem that has intensified since. The recent debacle at Calderdale Libraries, in which, following a complaint, books were first removed from the shelves and then after an outcry, grudgingly reinstated with an assurance they would not be prominently displayed, is a classic example of self-censorship masquerading as an unnecessary fudge. Worse was the Arnolfini Gallery’s recent decision to cancel two Bristol Palestine Film Festivals events fearing a breach of political impartiality, followed by a limp apology and an artist boycott. The political impartiality of venues is there to enable individual artistic freedom, not remove it. 

Finally it’s difficult to read ACE’s Investment Principles coupled with the extensive data sets organisations must report against (which even ACE concedes should be reviewed in line with the Office of National Statistics), and not conclude the organisation itself is politically partial. 

In this climate the new guidance is likely to chill arts’ leaders’ courage, as it collides with an easily offended activist workforce. It’s an over-statement to claim, as some have, that ACE is banning political work, or that it is motivated by malign government pressure, although the Government’s recent intervention, removing a grant to Northern Irish band Kneecap, is concerning.  No, ACE is re-calibrating in a charged environment. Unfortunately its recent track record suggests it cannot be trusted as an impartial broker.  

The threat to artistic freedom is rarely intentional in a democratic society. Censorship creeps in through a diffident failure to protect it. In this instance, it is the unintended consequence of a flawed body that has abandoned artistic freedom. Add that to the ACE risk register.

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