Arts council to clarify guidance after NPO censorship row - Museums Association

Arts council to clarify guidance after NPO censorship row

Funder says it is committed to free expression as sector questions 'unworkable' risk guidance
The arts council has updated its Relationship Framework guidance for NPOs. Pictured: An image from the arts council's 10-year strategy, Let's Create
The arts council has updated its Relationship Framework guidance for NPOs. Pictured: An image from the arts council's 10-year strategy, Let's Create Artonik Bell Square © Vipul Sangoi

Arts Council England is to clarify its guidance for National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) after it led to a row over freedom of expression.

Issued in January, an update to the organisation’s Relationship Framework for NPOs outlined the types of activity or behaviours constituting a reputational risk that could potentially breach an organisation’s funding agreement with the arts council.

In addition to activity such as fraud or corruption, the guidance also identified as risks “artistic and creative output that might be deemed controversial, activity that might be considered to be overtly political or activist and goes beyond your company’s core purpose, and partnerships with organistions that might be perceived as being in conflict with the purposes of public funding of culture”.

It continued: “Any activity undertaken by the organisation can bring reputational risk to the arts council, regardless of whether the activity is directly funded through your grant or not. Reputational risk can be generated not just by the organisation and its decisions, but by staff and other individuals associated with the organisation acting in a personal capacity.

“Risks posed by negative press or social media coverage in relation to any of these issues, or to whistleblowing or similar concerns, should also be taken into account.”

This sparked a furore on social media after it was reported by Arts Professional, with warnings that it could curtail artistic and intellectual freedom, and inhibit NPOs from producing or hosting work deemed political or controversial.


The arts council said it had listened closely to this feedback and would publish an updated version of the framework in due course.

In a statement on 15 February, the arts council said: "The updates we made to our Relationship Framework were intended to support funded organisations in identifying and responding to risks, and were in no way meant to limit artistic expression. However, it’s very apparent from what we’ve heard that the language we used in our update was open to misinterpretation.

"We know from our conversations with organisations that support around managing complex, risky issues is needed, and that is what the Relationship Framework is there to do. But in light of what we’ve heard this week, we’re looking again at some of the language we’ve used, and will clarify it to fully reflect our original intention.

"We’ll publish an updated version of the Relationship Framework as soon as possible."

The arts council apologised for a lack of clarity in the original update. In a statement on 14 February, it said: “We are sorry if we have not been as clear as we might have been in our communication around this issue.” 

The funder reiterated its commitment to freedom of expression for artists and organisations, saying: “For a cultural sector to thrive, freedom of expression – personal, artistic, and political – is indisputably vital. All of us who work in the cultural sector have witnessed the effects of the stifling of artists’ free speech in other countries, and at the arts council we recognise our role in safeguarding this crucial right.”


The arts council said it had updated the guidance in response to the current polarised climate in which artists and organisations are working, and the lack of nuance in contemporary debate, particularly on social media.

The statement said: “Over recent years, we have all, on many occasions, seen individuals and organisations working in the cultural sector subjected to aggressive attacks for the art they have presented, the positions they have taken, or statements they have made.

“In this context, and in response to requests for guidance on navigating this environment from a number of leaders of cultural organisations, we refreshed our framework on managing reputational risks.” 

The arts council said concerns that it was seeking to restrict organisations or artists from producing political or controversial work were unfounded.

It said: “For the avoidance of doubt, our guidance does not seek to stop any artist or organisation from making the art they want to make, or speaking out in any way they wish – including in ways that challenge institutions and authorities.  

“The guidance does, however, set out a series of steps for organisations to go through, to ensure that if they, or people associated with them, are planning activity that might be viewed as controversial, they have thought through, and so far as possible mitigated, the risk to themselves and crucially to their staff and to the communities they serve.


“We do expect the organisations we invest in to ensure that the people who work for them, and the communities they work with and for, are considered with care. Individuals at work must not be subject to harassment or discrimination, and publicly funded cultural venues should be welcoming to all their communities.

“Our guidance is intended to support organisations in balancing the vital right of freedom of expression with the need to ensure that they, their staff, and their communities are considered, and kept safe.”

Personal views

The arts council also addressed particular concerns that have been raised about the updated framework’s reference to individuals, especially artists. The statement said: “Again, to be absolutely clear, we fully respect and defend the rights of individual artists to freedom of expression, political or otherwise.

“However, in practice, we understand that some individual artists – for example, artistic directors – are strongly associated with the organisations for whom they work, and as a result, their personal positions may be taken to be those of the wider organisation.

“Therefore, if individuals working in public-facing positions in cultural organisations are planning to undertake activity, even in a personal capacity, that might be deemed controversial, the guidance advises that they discuss this with their board, in order to agree a plan to mitigate any risks that might arise.

“Once again, such decisions are matters for organisations and their boards or leadership groups, not for the arts council. The intention of the refreshed relationship framework is not to prevent individuals from expressing their political views, but to support artists and organisations with tools to ensure that this is done in a such a way that it does not result in unintended consequences, or distress for others associated with the organisation.”


However, some culture professionals feel that this response raises further questions, such as what level of board scrutiny the arts council expects of NPOs, and who would be responsible for scrutinising board behaviour.

One museum professional told Museums Journal: “This is worrying and unworkable guidance; artists and people who work in the cultural sector must be able to engage in political debate and discourse in their professional and personal lives.”

There has been confusion in the sector in recent years about the extent to which charitable organisations are permitted to engage in public debate or take a political stance.

In December, the Charity Commission issued guidance clarifying that: “Charities can take part in political activity provided it supports their purpose and is in their best interests. However, political activity must not become the reason for a charity’s existence. Charities must also remain independent and must not give their support to a political party.”

However, organisations that receive public funding also have a legal duty to be objective, and to allow for and represent a plurality of views among staff and audiences.

Arts Council England review

In news announced before the current controversy, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is to conduct a full-scale review of Arts Council England. The government regularly reviews public bodies to ensure they are accountable, effective and efficient.

A spokesman for the arts council said: “Public body reviews are part of a standard governance process for non-departmental bodies to make sure that they deliver outstanding public services. We are already working with our sponsor department (the Department for Culture, Media and Sport) on this.

"We look forward to engaging positively with the process, as we did during the last review in 2017, to demonstrate how we're delivering our 10-year strategy Let’s Create, supporting organisations and individuals in the sector, and contributing to government priorities.”

An analysis of freedom of speech and censorship in the arts and culture sector will be in the March/April issue of Museums Journal


Updated to include a further statement from Arts Council England.

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