Size matters for Arts Council England's new visual arts national portfolio organisations

By Mark Sheerin | 31 March 2011
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Photo of a gallery with coloured nude sculptures on plinths
A Keith Farquhar exhibition as seen at Studio Voltaire© Keith Farquhar
We now know where the pounds of flesh required from the national arts scene are to come from. Arts Council England (ACE) announced its slimmed down national portfolio of Regularly Funded Organisations on Wednesday.

In terms of galleries, at least, the majority keep their regularly funded place on ACE’s list of 695 newly dubbed NPOs. But the ICA is to lose a massive 42% of its funding while Hampshire gallery Artsway is left off the list altogether. The latter has left the innovative gallery facing a very uncertain future. 

“We’re shocked. We were very disappointed and we are struggling to understand quite how this happened,” said Director Mark Segal. “It’s going to be very tough for the organisation to carry on in its current guise with the same range and quality of its work.”

But most other NPOs still lose out. Ikon in Birmingam, Arnolfini and Spike Island in Bristol and New Art Gallery Walsall are typical in all facing 11% cuts. So only if such venues can survive on reduced means will the landscape remain more or less in tact.

This would be a relief. The Grants in Aid budget has been slashed by 29.6% and ACE have passed on 14.9% of these cuts to NPOs. So it is wondrous that some will even benefit from funding increases and more than 20 new RFOs have also been created.

One of these is Studio Voltaire. This South London arts organisation provides studio space, two galleries and an education programme and can now continue to do so with the help of £70,000 a year.

The new funding status of Project Space Leeds is in a similar vein. This is an artist-led exhibition space with 500 square metres, with an ACE average income of £50,000 a year.

Since it is not uncommon for an NPO to receive £1m or more, these sums are peanuts in the grand scheme of things. Yet what both Studio Voltaire and PSL offer is little different to what you might find in a more iconic venue. A visit to a gallery is a visit to a gallery, so long as they can develop their audiences.

“Like most small scale arts organisations, Studio Voltaire has been able to deliver an ambitious programme on very frugal means,” said Artistic Director Joe Scotland, who also pointed out: “NPO status will allow us to reach more people and will bring down the investment per head of each visitor.”

Next year it appears that almost £37 million will be spent on 142 RFOs, defining their remit as visual arts. While it is fantastic to have flagship galleries and they no doubt bring a range of huge benefits to cities, smaller ventures can still do the basic job. At least ACE seems to think so.

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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