London bias in culture funding is laid bare - Museums Association

London bias in culture funding is laid bare

Independent report reveals that residents of London received 10 times more from taxpayer and lottery arts funding than those in the English regions. Geraldine Kendall investigates
Amid all the discussion at the Museums Association (MA) conference in Liverpool last month, there was one topic that kept cropping up: the gulf between funding for culture in London and the rest of the UK.

This geographic inequity has long been recognised, of course, but Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital, an independent report that emerged weeks before the conference, laid out the numbers in stark terms.

The report, which was produced by three arts professionals, focuses on England alone, and found that London received £86 of taxpayer and lottery arts funding combined per head of population in 2012-13. This compared with just £8 per head in the rest of the country.

The disparity for lottery funding in isolation was similarly wide; since the National Lottery was established in the mid-1990s, London has received £165 per head of population from Arts Council England (ACE), compared with £47 in the English regions. London’s total excludes Millennium Dome and Olympics funding.

Though not specified in the report, lottery money for the cultural heritage sector is also disproportionately weighted towards London. Research by Museums Journal has shown that Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) distribution for museums and galleries since 1994-95 to the present has amounted to £55 per head in London – more than double an average of £21 for the rest of the UK (see bar chart).

Unethical distribution

As the report points out, the imbalance in lottery distribution is all the more unethical because people who are less well-off tend to spend relatively more on the lottery. Ticket sales peak in the north-east (the region with the highest unemployment levels) where 56% of households play. Conversely, only 32% of households in London buy tickets – the lowest proportion in England.

Another surprising revelation is that although London attracts more cultural funding, levels of public engagement remain almost identical to other regions, which raises the question as to who is actually benefiting from all the extra money?

The public funding bias would be pronounced enough on its own, but inequity also has a significant impact on other income streams. In his conference speech, MA president David Anderson pointed out that “wealth attracts wealth, poverty begets poverty”.

Figures compiled by Arts & Business show that London accounts for 71% of cultural fundraising from private sources and 82% of philanthropic donations.

Widening gulf
This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that disadvantaged regions are those being hit hardest by local authority cuts to cultural funding, meaning the funding gulf is likely to get even worse.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is trying to stimulate philanthropy, but again a bias exists: in the first round of ACE’s Catalyst programme for building fundraising capacity, 61% of its arts endowment funding went to organisations in London.

The report focused particular criticism on the arts council’s funding decisions, and ACE has responded with a robust justification of its spending. The organisation says that it is not a question of the capital “versus the rest of the country”, pointing out the work that its London-based organisations do themselves to reach out to the regions through touring exhibitions and digital provision.

Chicken-and-egg situation

The arts council also says that on subsidy per attendance, its investment doesn’t unduly favour London – although it could be argued that this is a chicken-and-egg situation, as better-funded organisations tend to attract more visits in the first place. 

ACE chairman Peter Bazalgette launched a further defence at the MA conference. While acknowledging that a disparity exists, he pointed out that 90% of the arts council’s museum funding goes to the regions and much of the rest is allocated directly by the DCMS (a point that still fails to account for the bias in other funding streams).

He added that it would take time to tackle the imbalance, asking the sector to “judge us in a couple of years”.

Some culture professionals point out, however, that ACE and other funders have listened to the same argument in the past and failed to take across-the-board action, limiting the response to one-off funding streams that do not address the underlying problem.

So what can be done? Few people would want to see the capital’s cultural offer diminished, but a key point emerging from the debate is that the entire structure for culture funding needs to change before inequality can truly be addressed.

The report’s authors advocate a more decentralised approach to cultural funding in line with most other European countries, so that not all decision-makers are based in London.

Five-year programme

The report’s authors suggest that lottery money should be distributed per head of population through a five-year £600m “national investment programme” – a figure that ACE argues is actually less than what it would spend outside the capital if it used its 2012-13 investment pattern as a guide. 

In the longer term, others have a more ambitious step in mind. With so much public and private funding going to national institutions, the MA’s head of policy, Maurice Davies, suggests that some of them should be moved wholesale to other English cities over the next 50 years.

Coincidentally, this proposal was echoed at the same time in a report by the thinktank Civitas, which argues that dispersing the nation’s major cultural institutions would create greater economic sustainability in the UK.

Even if this suggestion seems a little far-fetched, there is no doubt that it will require imagination on all sides to tackle a bias that, as the report points out, is “unhealthy” for both the nation and its capital.

To read the report in full, please click here

David Anderson

The data published in Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital should come as no surprise. Research produced by Arts & Business a couple of years ago showed a very similar pattern.

The real disappointment is that three experienced arts professionals had to undertake this work, because we in the sector had failed to do so.

As England’s capital, with devolved responsibility for culture, London should get a disproportionate share of public expenditure on the arts, including museums. It has a key role as a tourist destination, and holds national collections in a variety of disciplines.

But the scale of the inequity, in public as well as private funding, is beyond reason. Now the cuts in arts and museums are hitting hardest in the communities, regions and nations of the UK that already have least provision.

There has been an absence of geography, as well as of equity, in our discussion of arts policy. We now need funders to look at the whole picture – and then redirect funding to support the people who need it most.

David Anderson is the president of the MA and the director of Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales

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