How Does the Money Flow?

John Knell, Chair of the Board at Sound and Music
John Knell, Chair of the Board at Sound and Music
First presented: Tuesday 29th September
HOME Manchester
Produced by: 
John Knell

Sound and Music's Chair of Trustees, John Knell, asks some powerful & provocative questions. First presented as a speech during the 2015 No Boundaries symposium.


How will changing structures and policies shape future flows of money into the arts?

John Knell

My central argument is: 

  • we need to invest in scale to punch above our weight culturally, and we also need to invest in grass roots activity and talent to drive participation and new ideas; 

  • we need to stop investing in the complex web of middle scale gatekeepers slowing everything down and getting in the way; 

  • we need a new set of dynamic platform organisations to amplify our artistic and audience footprint; and 

  • we need to foster a glorious messy plurality and vibrancy, supported by a stronger, more collaborative cultural sector. 

But before I make the case for using that approach to determine where the money goes…  

One quick comment on respect and reciprocity – and the moment we’re in, regarding current debates about cultural investment. 

I am growing to hate the tone in which the investment and funding debate is being staged.   

It’s becoming snide and shrill.    

And that’s just the arts and cultural community. 

Whether the ill-judged ‘posh’ art form comments of the Shadow Culture Secretary in the Sunday Times two days ago, or the crude uses and abuses of the rebalancing arguments, we’re in danger of losing our way in debating where the money goes now and in the future. 

An ecology based approach, based on clearer intentions, and sharper evidence, is likely to foster more collegiality and I hope less unproductive competition. 

Any debate about where the money goes needs to start with the question, what are we investing for?  

What are the outcomes we most value and most seek?  

So with regard to the outcomes we seek from investment – is this where all the disagreement lies about where the money goes, now and in the future?  

I don’t think so. 

There appears to be a remarkable consensus on the outcomes public and private investors are trying to secure in partnership with the arts and cultural sector, namely to:  

nurture cultural and creative infrastructure, and cultural offers, of vitality and relevance; 

  • ensure that more people get to make and experience culture; 

  • and fulsomely back artists to take risks, think, experiment and explore and to sustain creative lives. 

Rather the disagreements - and therefore the opportunities - centre around the ‘how’. 

Both in terms of the relative weight that should be attached to these outcomes, and how we best fashion an arts and cultural ecology that’s fit for purpose to produce them.  

My argument and the following provocations centre around this key proposition:  

It’s the whole ecology stupid

The arts, heritage and cultural sector is clearly interwoven as a vibrant ecology – so my first provocation is: if that’s so self evident, why don’t we invest it as an ecology?  

The truth about the current investment status quo is that all too often it continues to pit arts organisation against arts organisation, reinforcing silo mentalities and practices, and doing too little to encourage expansive and imaginative thinking about how best to foster the development of the sector as a whole.  

So what needs to change in order to realise this whole ecology investment approach? 

Here are three thoughts: 

Firstly, a whole ecology investment approach will require the investors to act differently.

We need the key players in the investment ecology to become much more networked and collaborative. (There’s a long list of organisations here including: Central Government; Local Authorities; LEPS, Arts Council England, BBC, Channel 4, the British Film Institute, Heritage Lottery Fund, major trusts and foundations, creative businesses and venture capitalists.) 

It’s not that some of them aren’t trying to be collaborative – but progress is too slow.  

I think over the last 15 years funders have collectively failed the sector by failing to plan strategically together. This has led to a lack of additionality in investments, and a funding system that actively encourages rampant competition, with a clear sight of the outcomes that matter most often being lost, and huge amounts of time and energy being wasted. 

Perhaps we can discuss here at No Boundaries what are the most important whole eco-system investment rules those key investors should share. 

Secondly, if we accept the ecology approach – let’s accept that different bits of the ecology do very different things, and need to be supported accordingly. 

Let’s start actively acknowledging the impossibility of many small arts organisations having the range of skills required to function in the increasing complexity of the mixed economy model. 

Indeed the uncomfortable truth for the emerging dynamics of creative and commercial success is that the range of skills and capabilities required for a cultural organisation to be resilient and sustainable grow ever larger: 

  • Creative leadership 
  • Strong governance 
  • Great management skills 
  • Investment, fundraising and entrepreneurial expertise 
  • Data led on both creative development and audience engagement 
  • The ability to stay up to date with the constant stream of new legislation and compliance requirements 
  • And the capacity to engage with a burgeoning array of investors and funders.  
  • Rarely are all these skills and capabilities to be found in small-scale cultural organisations. 

Moreover, even in the rare cases where all the skills are resident in a small organisation, there is simply not the capacity to sustain and steward the range of relationships required to succeed in this model.  

None of which means they don’t have a vital role to play in the ecology – rather the opposite – they’re part of the glorious and messy plurality I talked of earlier. Larger organisations need their creative vibrancy as much as audiences do. 

To realise the vibrant creative potential of artists and smaller organisations, we need to foster, or build, new types of platform organisations – collaborative, open catalysts in the ecology that can become more generous incubators of the new and the diverse, maximizing access and engagement for a wide variety of cultural consortiums and artists in the emerging mixed investment landscape.  

This isn’t narrowly about pooling financial and administrative resources for the greater good of the ecology, but about supporting, or indeed creating organisations that are capable of scaling up the overall cultural and artistic footprint of the assets in their local and national networks.  

These platform organisations should be built on clear principles of generous creative sponsorship and audience growth and engagement – distributing opportunity, profile and resources across the sector, building a national audience rather than their own audience.  

This would be a faster route to leveraging in more diversity and difference than everyone trying to rush through the current narrowing funding doors. 

We should be incentivising these types of platform organisations to take shape.  

Their aim should be to create opportunity and get out of the way.   Not squat in the funding system and draw up the hatches. 

The networks they build and sustain will over time become the focus for investment.  

In short, we should reject a mindset of protecting and scaling up the organizational footprint of the arts and cultural sector, and focus instead on increasing our collective artistic and audience footprint.  

This requires ambition and radicalism, not a fight to hold on what we have. 

Thirdly and finally, we need to adopt a much clearer understanding of the role of our truly national organisations in the ecology, and introduce some hard headed economics into the argument.  

I’d like to argue that:  

Many of our larger arts and cultural institutions are not too big to fail, they are too small to succeed.  

I can’t conceive of a more short-sighted response to our investment challenges than the suggestion that ongoing ‘Robin Hood’ raids on the commanding heights of our cultural infrastructure represent a clever form of cultural renewal, and likely to achieve the outcomes I’ve already discussed. 

I’m not about to mount a defensive argument here – although there is one to rehearse – not least the danger to our whole cultural ecology of the progressive ‘hollowing out’ of key institutions in London and the core cities across the county – in terms of the loss of curatorial and cultural expertise. 

Rather my argument concerns the winner take all nature of content markets in the digital era, and the global competitiveness of our cultural and content industries.  

So why am I arguing that some or our national and core city organisations are too small to succeed on a global stage? 

The impact of digital technologies are normally presented as a uniquely positive democratising influence on cultural production and distribution, which should allow more and more cultural producers to create and distribute their work to a greater number and variety of audiences than they would otherwise be able to do.  

Unfortunately the emerging truths of the digital content economy are that digital technologies are actually having the opposite effect:  

They foster concentration and a winner-take-all dynamic.  

By making reproducing, distributing, and consuming media content easier and cheaper, new technologies increasingly give people around the world access to the most sought-after content, from films, to opera, to theatre.   

For audiences, average productions and average talent are no substitute for superior production values and premium talent. 

In this rapidly evolving marketplace, the very best content, stars, and ‘blockbusters’ gain in relevance and reach.i   

Viewed from the perspective of our national arts and heritage organisations, it is the biggest and best that stand to gain the most from these new distribution technologies for two key reasons: 

  • their ability to finance the necessary investments in technology; and 
  • their ability to attract and retain world-class creative talent. 

But too few of our national cultural organisations have the scale and scope to successfully compete for national and global audiences, real or virtual.  

Significantly reducing their funding is likely to further erode their creative vitality, international competitiveness and ability to succeed commercially.   

We should be significantly increasing our investment in some of these organisations – specifically in those that will also become the new type of platform organisations I’ve just described. 

But you will find no talk of how to grow world class content producers of scale in our national conversation about the best investment strategy for the arts and heritage sector and the wider creative industries.   

Perhaps because this is an uncomfortable idea in an era of diminishing public and charitable funds, when there is a growing pipeline of ideas and vibrant institutions of all sizes chasing a smaller pot of public and charitable investment. 

However, that harsh investment reality is not an excuse for economic illiteracy in our cultural policy-making.  

We certainly don’t tolerate any such sentiment when we are discussing how best to protect our national champions in big pharmaceuticals or life sciences. 

So I call on the relevant public agencies to undertake some proper analysis as to whether some of our ‘national’ organisations may need more public investment, not less, if they are to play a global role as content creators, talent developers, and powerful platform aggregators for the wider arts and cultural ecology in England.  

Which takes me back to where I started. The arts and cultural ecosystem needs to be seen as a connected vibrant system - and we need to invest accordingly, structuring investment approaches so that the arts and cultural sector as a whole can achieve their aspirations and create more public value.  

I’m suggesting that the proper adoption of this approach will lead to interesting conclusions. It is likely to mean:  

  • investing in fewer organisations to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts – and scaling up our cultural footprint in the process; 

  • more investment in participatory activities; 

  • investing more explicitly in placed based strategies including our core city regions; 

  • the emergence of new platform players in the sector, generous with their resources and expertise, aggregating the activities and content of others  so that a wider variety of cultural practitioners and perspectives can find a way to make a bigger contribution;  

  • it should definitely mean starting with the culture people want to make, and helping them engage, shape and the change the formal arts and cultural sector as a result (a big shout out to Fun Palaces for all they are doing to rebalance participation in that respect).  

What it will undoubtedly mean is not ducking hard questions about ends and means.  

So where will the money flow in the future?  

More than likely to the status quo of course. 

To avoid this unacceptable outcome we need to elevate our collective ambitions for artists and for audiences through a more ecology led approach.  

With both the arts sector and investors focusing much more on shared outcomes rather than individual success and profile, it’s high time we lost our ecology inhibitions, and embraced some of the undeniable implications. 

Thank you very much.  

John Knell at No Boundaries 2015 




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