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Be flexible, be bold

Creative arts should be part of a jigsaw of possibilities for people.

Ian Smith, mental health commissioner, Kirklees Council

While carrying out our newest research, we were struck by the relevance of arts and culture across a broad range of outcomes, working with all kinds of people, and relevant to the priorities of numerous commissioners. This presents an obvious funding opportunity for arts and cultural organisations but, more importantly, suggests they can provide some of the fresh thinking commissioners need as they struggle to deliver high quality services in the context of diminishing resources.

Public funding is in a pretty precarious position: local and central government continue to face cuts, and recent data shows the growing trend towards contracts over grants.

We can imagine the potential impact of these twin developments on the arts and culture sector given that the average organisation receives roughly a third of its income from public sources.

So is contracted work beginning to fill the gap?

The average charitable arts or culture organisation receives 10% of its income from contracts, against an average of 30% across the whole charity sector. We don’t know if arts and cultural organisations could or should aspire to match this percentage, especially since the majority will consider their artistic mission foremost, or of equal importance with their social mission.

But if they did, it would mean a doubling of the commissioned income they receive, representing a total of £300m a year.

This research comes from our latest report, Opportunities for alignment: arts and cultural organisations and public sector commissioning. It explores the experiences of arts and cultural organisations in delivering public services—to see how far the interests of the sector overlap with the priorities of public sector commissioners, and how arts and cultural organisations can evidence their ability to deliver on these priorities.

The report forms part of the Cultural Commissioning Programme, led by NCVO in partnership with NPC and nef, which aims to help the arts and cultural sector to better engage in public sector commissioning and support public service commissioners to develop awareness of the potential for arts and culture to deliver their outcomes.

The evidence shows that arts and cultural activities can offer a strong contribution to achieving social outcomes. For example, looking at the preventative agenda, keeping people socially connected and building a range of personal skills which contribute to individual resilience and wellbeing. These activities also provide space for service users to articulate their views, and contribute to the design of the services they use.

Commissioning will not be suitable for every arts or cultural organisation and it’s certainly not an easy funding add-on. It takes a huge investment of time, and organisations often change substantially as a result of the experience. The opportunities to engage vary between local areas, and are dependent on the leadership of, and relationships which can be built with, commissioning bodies.

But although the onus is often with organisations to change and adapt to the new funding environment, our message is also for commissioners, who will require support from leaders and policymakers to balance the potential risks of moving away from established ways of working towards a more flexible and open-minded strategy.

To take advantage of this real opportunity, both sides need to be bold to make it work.