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Spider & cobweb, Ai Weiwei, Liverpool Biennial 2008

Three years ago, it was hardly imaginable that RFO (Regularly Funded Organisation) status would be abandoned.  A core part of the arts funding structure, being an RFO did three things:

1.     It guaranteed a fixed level of funding from Arts Council England (ACE) for three years, enabling arts organisations to plan ahead.

2.    It gave a level of security, since the Arts Council rarely ‘disinvested’ from RFOs, and the vast majority continued to receive three year core funding into the next round (or two or three).

3.      It gave a very real status to arts organisations, suggesting quality of practice and output, which could be used to lever in other monies and opportunities.

Within the arts, being an RFO was considered better than simply being project funded, not just in practical financial terms, but as a recognition of worth.  Many arts organisations aspired to become an RFO.  Arts Council funding is seen as a kitemark of quality and acceptance, and RFO status was the highest tier of that acknowledgement.

This is now all set to change – or is it?  The new structure will be built around the notion of a National Portfolio of supported organisations.   For perhaps the first time, the spread of funding and arts provision across the country will be looked at in its entirety.   Decisions will be made based on quality of the work proposed, how it meets the Arts Council’s priorities, and the ability of the organisation to deliver.  So far, this is the same as the decision-making process for the Grants for the Arts programme.  What is new is the second stage, where ACE will make “a judgment about how well the organisation would fit into a balanced portfolio of funded organisations”.

This second judgement is based not on individual applications as such, but will attempt to create “a balanced portfolio”, looking at supporting a range of organisational sizes, types, artforms, spread and diversity across the country.  It seems that ACE wants to create, and crucially to enable, a country-wide arts infrastructure that, presumably, equals an idea of what a healthy arts ecology should look like.  ACE will look at organisations in terms of how important they are strategically.  As a result, there will be some organisations, particularly the larger ones, not desperately worried about the outcome of their applications.  For them it will be more a question of how much and for what, rather than whether they will be funded at all.  For others, particularly the smaller ones, this will be an anxious time.  Some organisations will be looking at closer partnerships, or even mergers, with similar organisations; all will have to prove their worth and possibly economies of scale.

This is not uncontested ground.  ACE itself has attempted to quantify ideal levels of arts provision based on local and regional heads of population in the past, now considered an old-fashioned and limited method.  Looking at ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ spots around provision and engagement, and theories of cultural regeneration have dominated current funding.   In ‘cold spots’ ACE has attempted to stimulate arts provision and engagement (for example, Turner Contemporary, due to open in Margate in April), while the ‘hot spots’ (like London, or Brighton in the south east) are already in a virtuous cycle.  At a basic level, more and probably better applications to the National Portfolio will come from hot spots than from cold spots. Creating a “balance” then, a country-wide healthy ecology, is not an easy task.  Nevertheless, there is real opportunity here to bring in fresh blood and to achieve a better balance than currently exists.

A central question going forward must be about sustainability, or as it is now termed, resilience.  Crucially, ACE is seeking not only to fund a balanced portfolio in this first round, for periods ranging from two to five years, but will need to fund it into the future to sustain a healthy infrastructure. There will inevitably be some ‘tweaks’, but is there a danger that this will lead to a stagnant National Portfolio, replicating the RFO system?

One of the criticisms of the RFO system was that it became something of a closed shop.  Once you were in, providing you didn’t mess up in a big obvious way, you were likely to stay there.  That meant that there wasn’t much room for new or developing organisations to be included in the club.  One of the aims of the National Portfolio is to shake this up; how it settles we won’t know until decisions are announced on 30th March.

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