Arts Council England embroiled in crisis over guidance on ‘political statements’

The Arts Council England (ACE) has updated its Relationship Framework policies, which delineate how the ACE works with the National Portfolio Organisations it has funded for 2023–2026. The update, dating from 25 January, includes a new section ‘Considering reputational risk’ and steps to take for Portfolio-funded organisations to manage their reputation, Arts Professional reports.

The guidance reads: ‘We define reputational risk as any activity or behaviour (for example, programming, events, statements (including about matters of current political debate), management decisions etc) that potentially breaches the terms and conditions of the funding agreement and/or is likely to result in negative or damaging reactions or coverage from the press, public, partners and/or stakeholders (eg sponsors and/or other funders) towards the organisation or the Arts Council.’ The framework document cites activities that ‘might be deemed controversial, activity that might be considered to be overtly political or activist and goes beyond your company’s core purpose and partnerships with organisations that might be perceived as being in conflict with the purposes of public funding of culture.’

Yesterday, Arts Professional summarised the changes on Twitter, drawing millions of views and triggering widespread criticism of the policy change. They highlight the fact that, for the ACE, reputational risks can now be posed ‘“not just by the organisation” but also by “staff and other individuals associated with the organisation acting in a personal capacity”’.

Equally, the ACE ‘expects all our funded organisations to support freedom of expression’.

Today, ACE posted a statement on its website ‘in the wake of social media debate about an Arts Professional report on updates to our relationship framework for funded organisations’. The Arts Council said they wished to ‘clarify the reason for the changes we made, and – for the absolute avoidance of doubt – our position on freedom of expression, for artists and organisations’. The statement explains that the Arts Council does not ‘seek to stop any artist or organisation from making the art they want to make, or speaking out in any way they wish. …  The guidance does, however, set out a series of steps for organisations to go through, to ensure that if they, or people associated with them, are planning activity that might be viewed as controversial, they have thought through, and so far as possible mitigated, the risk to themselves  and crucially to their staff and to the communities they serve.’

Neither the updated guidelines nor the statement mention the words Palestine, Israel or war.

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