Is ACE fulfilling its rural obligations? - Museums Association

Is ACE fulfilling its rural obligations?

The arts council's position statement says its approach to rural communities has evolved over the past 10 years, as it sets out a raft of initiatives. Gareth Harris reports
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Gareth Harris
A recent Arts Council England (ACE) position statement on its approach to rural communities has revealed a surprising statistic: museum engagement is similar across rural and urban areas.

In the Taking Part survey of 2011-12, 49% of participants in urban areas said they had attended a museum at least once in the previous year, compared with 48.2% in rural neighbourhoods.

But whether ACE is doing enough to meet the needs of rural communities has prompted debate, particularly following the publication last year of the Rebalancing our Cultural Capital report, which highlighted the gulf between public and private funding for culture in London and the rest of the UK.

ACE says its approach to working with rural localities has evolved over the past decade (see box). It points out that many of its regularly funded national portfolio organisations encompass numerous bodies with a “direct rural focus”.

Several museums that receive regular funding from ACE also serve rural areas. These include Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service, and the Cumbria Museums Consortium, which comprises Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle, the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere and Lakeland Arts.

“Rural dimension”

Gordon Watson, the chief executive of Lakeland Arts, welcomes the position statement, saying that it gives a vital “rural dimension” to ACE’s framework Great Art and Culture for Everyone 2010-20, which was updated last year.

“ACE is talking about rural audiences, rather than just addressing how the culture sector here caters for tourism, which is a short-term solution,” he says.

Steve Miller, the head of Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service, says he regards the arts council’s funding criteria and assessment process to be transparent, and that he does not believe arts organisations and museums in rural areas have been disadvantaged.

Miller adds that ACE’s museum development grants programme supports smaller museums, many of which are located in rural locations.

The position statement sets out a raft of ACE initiatives, including details of how the organisation will work with key strategic and delivery partners such as local government agencies. ACE also says that it intends to hold a biannual meeting of rural stakeholders to consider arts-led issues.

Crucially, last July ACE co-organised a rural workshop with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) that focused on how the arts council operates in relation to rural communities.

ACE says this led to several actions being adopted, including exchanging information with Defra about the council’s recent joint projects with local enterprise partnerships. 

ACE has written to the chairs of all LEPs, including those in rural districts, to offer its support “in realising culture’s economic contribution in their areas”.

Note of caution

Gordon Watson strikes a note of caution, however, saying: “It is a challenge to get the LEPs to accept the value of culture and tourism, and it needs to be demonstrated that culture sector jobs are high-value jobs.”

He adds that ACE’s position statement also fails to address issues such as rural isolation, poor transport links and limited broadband access. “It would be a stronger report for reflecting the fact that rural areas are under pressure,” Watson says.

ACE’s statement says these “external factors” are outside its control, though it “will seek to improve our understanding of these with our partners and stakeholders”.

ACE’s approach to rural communities

  • 2005 The Arts in Rural England report sets out objectives, such as supporting artists working in rural areas.
  • 2007 ACE incorporates “rural proofing” (policies that meet the needs and interests of rural communities) in its policymaking, investment and delivery.
  • 2013 A rural proofing workshop is held in conjunction with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
  • February 2014 ACE addresses claims of a funding bias towards London in its report This England, and says it has concentrated much of its capital investment in urban centres.
  • March 2014 ACE publishes a position statement on communities living in rural England. It welcomes views on the statement

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