Arts council changes hit Scotland and Wales

Simon Stephens, Issue 106/2, p11, February 2006
Museums and galleries in Wales and Scotland will have to adapt to changes in cultural funding after both governments revealed plans to shake-up their arts councils.
The most radical change is in Scotland where culture minister Patricia Ferguson announced proposals on 19 January to abolish the Scottish Arts Council and merge it with Scottish Screen to create a new agency called Creative Scotland.

Ferguson was responding to last year's Cultural Commission report into Scotland's artistic future. One of the key recommendations was to create two bodies to oversee all cultural policy and funding, including museums, but Ferguson rejected this.

Other proposals by Ferguson include a policy on cultural entitlement; direct funding of national performing arts companies; and expanding the group of national collections to include archives, screen archives and historic monuments.

Joanne Orr, the director of the Scottish Museums Council (SMC), said she was pleased with the Ferguson announcement. 'I think the important thing is the endorsement of the arm's length principal and we're obviously pleased that the SMC is recognised as the channel for executive funding of non-national museums.'

There is also new money available to museums as Ferguson said that the 'executive will explore with the SMC the most effective and efficient solution for providing support from national funds to non-national museums containing collections of truly national significance'.

This will be done with an extra £500,000 per year over the next two years to support non-national museums and to launch the Significance Recognition Scheme.

In Wales, the position of the arts council has been weakened by the culture minister Alun Pugh's proposals to transfer strategic planning decisions from the council to the Welsh Assembly and to make government directly responsible for funding six arts bodies that have a national remit.

This was originally announced in November 2004, but came to a head on 6 January this year when the Arts Council of Wales met in emergency session after it was revealed that Pugh would not renew the appointment of its chairman Geraint Davies, who had opposed some of the plans.

A statement from Janet Roberts, the vice chair of the Arts Council of Wales, said: 'The proposal to transfer six of the council's largest clients to the culture department represents a major breach in the arm's length principle that has been observed across the UK for nearly 60 years.'

At this early stage, it is difficult to tell how these changes will affect museums and galleries in Wales, although the arts council will still have responsibility for lottery distribution.

Chris Delaney, the president of the Federation of Museums and Art Galleries of Wales, said: 'From initial discussions with colleagues in the sector, there appear to be no immediate implications for museum and galleries in Wales. However, it is recognised that in the future it may affect those museums and galleries who are revenue clients of the Arts Council of Wales.'

The irony of the weakened or abolished arts councils in Wales and Scotland is that Arts Council England has been strengthened by a peer review published late last year.

The report, the second review of Department for Culture, Media and Sport-sponsored bodies after the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council in 2004, said: 'We believe that government, the public and the arts community benefit from the focus, authenticity and reach that an arm's length body can provide.'

The chairman of Arts Council England, Christopher Frayling, felt strongly enough about the issue to refer to it in the council's annual report. He said: 'Lines must be drawn between elected politicians or civil servants and an independent funding body and we are monitoring developments in Wales and Scotland with some concern.'

Simon Stephens