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Last week’s NALGAO conference was useful and interesting.  As expected, discussion concentrated on the extent of public sector funding cuts and the impact of this on local provision of arts services.

“These are dark times,” said Chair Lorna Brown in her keynote speech.  “We have to face up to an unprecedented situation where for some the key issue will be that of survival.” Noting that nationally, 45 local authority arts services have been lost in the last five years, she articulated the general mood of unease and insecurity. “With local authority budgets facing a 30% cut and a similar level of cut to Arts Council England, there is a grave danger of a double whammy to the arts.  It’s enough to make even the most determined faint-hearted.”

There are no perfect solutions, only make-do and mend actions, driven by ConDem economic and political policy.  In these times, it seems that rational and best-practice cultural thinking are out of favour.  But the atmosphere was also stoical.  Good minds are already trying to think through and around the situation, to try to salvage what can be saved.  The two coming trends for local authorities and Local Strategic Partnerships (and probably LEPs – Local Enterprise Partnerships) are outsourcing of assets,  and strategic commissioning.

There are pros and cons to both these courses of action, and in the case of strategic commissioning, this represents both opportunity and threat for artists and arts organisations.  Certainly, it’s a concept we are all going to have to get to grips with because it has the potential to change the income/funding landscape quite significantly, and is a notion new to the creative sector. If they want and are suited to be part of the strategic commissioning process, arts organisations, and to a lesser extent, practitioners, need to first have a seat around the table appropriate to them, and secondly, to be “commission ready”.

This is no easy task, and will mean different things in each local area.  Strategic commissioning is effectively a procurement process for which each local authority or body can set its own rules.  The only certainty is that they are likely to be rigorous and bureaucratic, and require the commissioned to be able to demonstrate their ability to deliver to contracts that require evidence of highly specific outputs.  The language is likely to be “arts unfriendly”, and the outputs will often relate to cross-cutting public agendas, such as contributing to improved health; or the reduction of teenage pregnancies; or contributing to economic development via tourism.

For socially engaged practitioners and organisations, and organisations with strong education and outreach programmes, this may not mean a great deal of change to how they operate; indeed, this could prove to be a useful and even enhanced source of income.  Others will be left wondering how they fit into this new landscape, especially if local authority core-grants bite the dust.

It’s a process I will be following with interest.  How will it work in practise?  How well does it work for the arts sector? Will it replace the process of giving grants for core-costs? What checks and balances are in place to ensure Commissioners act with integrity and some form of equality of opportunity? Is it effective in achieving the outcomes wanted?

I’ll be interested in hearing from anyone who has any experience of this process, either previously, currently or in the future. Please keep me posted!

In the meantime,  Nalgao announced wide-ranging changes to its constitution at the conference – my short piece outlining this in The Stage  here.

And my longer report on the conference will be published in Arts Industry on 17th December.  Subscription only I’m afraid, but you do get the first three months free: www.artsindustry.co.uk

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