Claire Mansfield, THE MJ, 14 August, 2014

Local government has been the unsung hero of arts and culture funding for many decades and over recent years, many local authorities have invested in the sector with considerable success.

The economic, cultural and social benefits that have resulted are clear to see in cities such as Liverpool and Gateshead, but also in a host of smaller towns and rural areas across the country.

But in the face of unprecedented budget cuts and the competing demands of other services, councils are under increasing pressure to reduce their finances for arts and cultural activities; funding has fallen by 19% in the last three years.

At the same time, funding bodies such as the Arts Council are also seeing their budgets trimmed, limiting still further the viability of the previous model of public support for the arts and culture.

As public investment in arts and culture has declined in recent years, the impact is beginning to be felt. Some changes are obvious: a local museum reducing its opening hours or a local theatre having more dark nights and fewer locally produced shows.

Other changes, such as reduced social capital from a shared experience, however, are less easily quantifiable. Indeed, the impact upon long-term quality of life may, eventually, lead to even more demand, particularly in the case of adult social care.

The story need not be a simple one of decline. Even with significantly reduced budgets many local authorities recognise that there is a cost to reducing support for culture. The New Local Government Network’s new research report – done in conjunction with Arts Council England – On With The Show: Supporting Local Arts and Culture explores the extent to which local government continues to value arts and culture, and crucially, looks at possible alternative models of support that local authorities can use to sustain it in their area.

Our research found that local government as a sector does continue to value arts and culture, and that their principle reason for funding the arts and culture is economic development. For example, St Albans DC is using its rich cultural heritage to drive visitor economy and Wakefield and Doncaster have utilised arts and culture to regenerate their areas.

Our report looks particularly at alternative and sustainable methods of support for the arts and culture that some councils are already beginning to implement. Eight case studies are used to detail the benefits of differing models, from trusts to sharing services and commissioning models.

In particular, we also found that local authorities are increasingly moving away from grant giving towards a commissioning model of funding. Areas such as Basingstoke
and Deane BC and Wakefield MBC have introduced this model.

Arts and culture increasingly have to align their services with the priorities of the local authority.

This may be within the corporate strategy, the health and wellbeing strategy, or some other component of the council’s strategic planning.

In addition to this, local authorities increasingly need to work in partnerships with other organisations to maximise capacity and sustain arts and culture in their areas.

Residents and volunteers will be essential in sustaining arts and culture locally and local authorities must find new ways of fostering relationships with them.

Local and national organisations can partner with councils to share a combined strategy, maximise funding opportunities and share skills and services to ensure that arts and culture are delivered at a high standard on a more streamlined budget.

Volunteers can help local authorities to maximise community capacity and foster greater relationships with residents and ‘cultural entrepreneurs’.

Overall, the picture that emerges from our research is one where local authorities themselves are adopting innovative new delivery models and are engaging with the cultural sector and with local communities in new and effective ways.

This report confirms that local government is well placed to lead the developments necessary to ensure that arts, museums, and libraries continue to play their valuable role in our local and national life.

We recommend local authorities create a clear vision for the role arts and culture
can play in the economic and social development of their area and embed this within their corporate strategy. This will enable councils to use their local leadership role to bring together other partners and investors around their vision and strategy.

Dr Claire Mansfield is a senior researcher with NLGN and author of On With the Show: Supporting Local Arts and Culture.