The cuts announced to DCMS budgets and staff in 2010 are really starting to take effect now, and as they do so their impact on cultural projects, organisations and sectors become increasingly clear. The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council has taken more of a hit than most, being wound up as a stand-alone organisation, and losing many of its staff. Some of its functions will, however, be taken on by Arts Council England (ACE). This arrangement was criticised earlier this year by the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee which argued that ACE does not have the expertise or the resources, being under significant pressure itself, to continue MLA’s functions.
As part of its national portfolio decisions, ACE cut funding to significant audience development work – dropping all the English Audiences UK organisations from its National Portfolio for 2012, with no further funding arrangements announced. ACE also dropped its audience development national campaign, intending to use their strategic plan to focus on audience research instead, but there is little evidence that this is happening in practice.
This change of focus away from understanding the needs of audiences and supporting cultural organisations raises questions over the future of the MLA’s work. The MLA worked closely with museum and library audiences, and ACE now has to decide whether it can provide the same services. ACE is funded to serve the public as a whole, but is increasingly retreating to its mainstays – the National Portfolio organisations, and they intend to create a similar portfolio for funded museums.
ACE commissioned Estelle Morris, a name from a different political era, to conduct a review of its 10-Year Strategic Framework. She assessed how ACE should take on MLA functions, when they transfer on 1st October. Her review, although complete, has not been widely publicised. This phase of review and refocusing is an important opportunity to recognise the value of MLA’s research and audience development activities, and ensure they do not vanish. Arts organisations, museums and libraries benefit from work more closely together to reach more people, learning from each other’s best practice, and presenting a joined up offer to audiences.