The news that Arts Council England (ACE) is to take on the key functions of the Museums & Libraries Archives Council (MLA) is both expected and bittersweet.
The MLA has been overtly rundown over the last few years, and is already a shadow of its former self. Senior regional directors are not provided with offices but must work from home, a significant number of staff have previously been made redundant, and the announcement of its ultimate demise earlier this year wasn’t entirely unexpected. It was a bitter blow for the staff who have committed their working energy to the organisation; but in truth, to the wider cultural sector, it was not seen as the most efficient and dynamic organisation.
The immediate question during the bonfire of the quangos announcements was “who will take on MLA’s (and UK Film Council’s) work?” There is no question that MLA delivers some important functions that cannot simply be allowed to wither. The obvious answer was – and remains – Arts Council England.
But this is bittersweet for ACE; both opportunity and threat. It is opportunity in that the greater range of work ACE is expected to deliver, then the more secure it becomes – as in, more likely to survive the Coalition Government, despite the slash and burn of its budgets.
If ACE positions itself as the pollyfilla of the cultural sector, then the extra responsibilities gives it additional status and weight and an increasingly powerful position.
But the threat lies in the details of the arrangement. ACE does not have the required expertise in-house, and this is not, currently, considered to be a merger of two organisations. The concern for ACE will be around whether they will be properly funded to take on the extra overheads, expertise and resources required to fulfil these new requirements. The huge question is whether the allocated £46m a year is enough?
The nightmare for ACE staff – already working at capacity – is the expectation of increased workload and a lack of capacity to deliver. This is an enormously stressful scenario to consider for individual staff, departments and the organisation as a whole. ACE has a mere 18 months to negotiate the best possible organisational structure for itself, its existing staff and the new recruits – while still under the obligation to drastically cut its own administration costs.
For the museum and libraries sector, this marks a further defined period of uncertainty, followed by what must inevitably be a difficult bedding-in period. This will make future planning increasingly difficult for them, and museums need to work on long lead-in times. On the human level, staff must be even further concerned about how many of their jobs will disappear – perhaps to be replaced by ‘volunteers’. Aka free labour. But that’s a subject for a whole other blog.