NPOs must support freedom of expression, says revised arts council guidance - Museums Association

NPOs must support freedom of expression, says revised arts council guidance

'Political' work will not lose funding, says ACE after censorship row

Cultural organisations are expected to support freedom of expresson but should plan for the reputational risks this could bring, according to revised guidance published this week by Arts Council England.

The latest update to the arts council’s Relationship Framework for National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) clarifies that the arts council “will not remove or refuse funding to an organisation or an individual purely because they make work that is political”.

The rewrite comes after controversy over a previous update to the guidance, published in January, which outlined reputational risks that could potentially breach an NPO’s funding agreement, including “activity that might be considered to be overtly political or activist”.

This wording was widely criticised, with many cultural workers warning that it could curtail artistic and intellectual freedom, and inhibit NPOs from producing or hosting work deemed political or controversial.

The arts council later apologised for its lack of clarity in the update, saying the guidance had been misinterpreted.

The revised guidance makes clear that the arts council expects “all organisations we invest in to support freedom of expression”.


It continues: “This framework is intended to support artistic freedom, by helping organisations identify, plan for, and respond to risks; avoid self-censorship; and tackle difficult subjects with clarity and confidence.”

The guidance acknowledges that the context in which cultural organisations are now operating is “polarised and fast-paced”.

“Artists and cultural organisations are invariably at the forefront of conversations around change and challenge in society, and it is the case that some of the organisations we fund will make work that engages with contested issues,” says the document.

“It is also the case that responses to such work can be rapid and intense. Those responses – from both social and mainstream media – can be overwhelming for the leaders of cultural organisations, their staff, and the artists with whom they work. They can also create significant reputational risk for the organisations themselves.”

The guidance advises NPOs engaging in controversial or contested work to put plans in place to mitigate reputational risk and support their staff.

It adds: “Identifying reputational risks is not about shying away from producing challenging work or avoiding difficult subjects. It should not deter an organisation from continuing with intentional, valuable activity. Rather, it should lead you to plan for how your organisation will respond in the event of negative reactions.”


The guidance also advises NPOs to have clear policies in place that distinguish between the personal views of staff and those speaking on behalf of the organisation.

It states: “Because of the nature of social media and online interaction, that risk can sometimes be generated by the actions of individual staff members or others who have an association in the public’s mind with your organisation, as well as by the organisation itself.

“Negative responses can be high-profile and can include protests, social media campaigns, damaging press, and potentially, legal ramifications. Outcomes could involve the cancellation of work, loss of income, loss of partnerships and employment opportunities, and mental health impacts on your staff, and others associated with your organisation.”

The guidance continues: “Individuals have the right to express their personal views, within the bounds of the law, and organisations should not attempt to constrain those rights. It is, however, good practice for organisations to maintain a clear and up-to-date social media policy that makes explicit the distinction between individuals speaking in a personal capacity, and on behalf of your organisation.”

Steps NPOs can take to manage reputational risk*

When thinking about undertaking activity that may result in reputational risk, or if something has happened that has caused one, the arts council recommend that organisations consider the following steps:

  1. If a risk is identified, flag it with your senior leadership team and board as soon as possible.
  2. Make time to consider and discuss the risk, and what it means.
  3. Speak to other organisations who have faced similar issues.
  4. If appropriate, develop a risk register for the activity, to identify and quantify risk and plan mitigation. Use this to agree what mitigating measures you could put in place.
  5. Having considered the risks, and the mitigating steps you can take to manage those risks, weigh up whether you want to proceed with the activity or action as it is, or whether there are further mitigating measures you could put in place.
  6. Put in place support for artists and staff involved in delivering the activity.
  7. Talk to the arts council about the risk, and your actions.
Additional guidance

*Arts Council England Relationship Framework, February 2024. Minor edits made for clarity

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