Looking at UK Arts & Culture funding

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This post is a branching off from my (George) personal blog, where I have been writing throughout lockdown about various things. I am interested to try to teach myself more about the Arts & Culture funding landscape in the UK, especially as the government has just announced their £1.57M grant, and because I’ve been trying harder to see where systemic racism and sexism live. I want to know how the funding will be distributed. I’m curious to see if I can draw the overall arts and culture funding picture a bit more clearly for myself, and thought others might be interested.

I would love for this to a be a conversation, especially if I’m really missing very important aspects as I explore. Comments are welcome.

Assets vs Need?

Today I haven’t been able to stop thinking of something that struck me when I first moved to the UK in 2014. One day, fairly soon after I’d moved here, I happened to have a coffee with Ed Vaizey, with my friend Wolfgang. He was very pleasant. I was not at all prepared as well as I should have been, and nothing came of it, which is one of my few regrets. But, the thing I noticed and remember most was that Mr. Vaizey’s shirt collar was frayed. How strange, I thought, that the Minster for Digital and Creative Industries couldn’t afford a shirt that wasn’t frayed. I mean, he has his own coat of arms.

Ed Vaizey’s coat of arms

I remember mentioning this to a new English friend who informed me that this was an ever so subtle class marker. That upper class people like to wear things out instead of buying new replacements. Very, very wealthy people apparently don’t have much actual cash, since all their wealth is tied up in things that are difficult to extract their wealth from, like a big house, or, say, most of the real estate in Bloomsbury, as is the case with the British Museum, whose total net assets were listed as £1,001,693,000 in its 2018/19 Annual Report on the Consolidated Balance Sheet, as at 31 March 2019. How hard it must be to see all that money listed as a line item in a balance sheet and not be able to use it.

I’ve been thinking about that £1,570,000,000 cash injection offered by the government to the arts sector, and trying to think about Who Needs This Funding The Least? It’s early days for my data gathering and poking, and sadly, the decisions have likely already been made about who is going to benefit, although I understand there will be some form of application for some. I’ve found it easy to let the various giant numbers flying around wash over me… 1 billion here, 120 million there so step one is to try to see some of these numbers, and particularly to see them against other comparators, to get a sense of the scale of the situation.

Today I learned that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) gives funds each year to what’s called “Arm’s Length Bodies” which receive what’s called “Grant in Aid”. I found a DCMS Estimate Memorandum containing a certain Table 3: Comparing the Grant in Aid funding of our Arm’s length bodies in 2016-17 through to 2018-19, which I share with you below: 

Organisation2017 projected2017 actual2018 projected
British Broadcasting Corporation£3,156,700,000£3,185,400,000£3,255,500,000
Arts Council England£460,526,000£494,183,000£479,972,000
Sport England£105,649,000£101,787,000£104,795,000
British Library£93,911,000£93,893,000£93,443,000
Historic England£87,806,000£87,912,000£90,734,000
UK Sport£53,536,000£60,890,000£61,431,000
British Museum£53,569,000£53,473,000£42,046,000
Natural History Museum£49,115,000£41,815,000£41,815,000
Science Museum Group£43,343,000£46,903,000£40,428,000
Tate Gallery£40,251,000£38,066,000£37,566,000
Victoria & Albert Museum£40,257,000£37,726,000£37,176,000
National Gallery£24,092,000£24,092,000£24,092,000
Imperial War Museum£32,136,000£25,347,000£23,634,000
British Film Institute£23,965,000£23,587,000£20,878,000
National Museums Liverpool£20,050,000£19,761,000£19,761,000
Royal Museums Greenwich£16,019,000£16,019,000£15,869,000
Royal Armouries£7,088,000£7,788,000£8,938,000
National Portrait Gallery£6,637,000£9,734,000£6,634,000
National Heritage Memorial Fund£35,250,000£5,489,000£5,000,000
Horniman Museum and Gardens£4,549,000£4,320,000£3,820,000
Information Commissioners Office£3,790,000£5,740,000£3,750,000
The Wallace Collection£2,711,000£3,711,000£2,711,000
Churches Conservation Trust£2,749,000£2,738,000£2,604,000
Geffrye Museum£1,696,000£1,786,000£1,796,000
Sports Grounds Safety Authority 2£0£1,542,000£1,601,000
Sir John Soane’s£1,983,000£1,012,000£1,012,000
Table 3: Comparing the Grant in Aid funding of our Arm’s length bodies in 2016-17 through to 2018-19

Isn’t that interesting? That is a bunch of support. What robust affirmative action! A total of £4,613,219,000 projected to be granted to these 30 “arm’s length” organisations in 2018. There’s the British Museum up there in the list, which was projected to receive £42,046,000 in 2018. The BM’s annual report (linked above) confirms for us that indeed: “The British Museum received £39.4 million revenue and £13.1 million capital grant-in-aid from the DCMS in 2018/19” on page 16.

All 30 organisations who receive this Grant in Aid are required to sign a Management Agreement with DCMS, and report back in a standard way so DCMS can see how well the grants are being used and measure performance consistently. For example, here is the Total income of DCMS-funded cultural organisations 2018/19 report from DCMS.

Big numbers can be numbing

The government’s support package announced this week to be spread across lots more organisations is about 34.03% of that total annual “arms length” grant in aid dispensed in 2018. I hope my maths is correct, otherwise I’m going to look even more naive and foolish. I am very willing to be called out on this if I have made mistakes, so I can learn more. I have tried to not make mistakes. I found Will Gompertz’s analysis of the situation useful, and he notes the basic breakdown of the COVID arts and culture grant we know today:

The £1.15bn support pot for cultural organisations in England is made up of £880m in grants and £270m of repayable loans. The government said the loans would be “issued on generous terms”.

Funding will also go to the devolved administrations – £33m to Northern Ireland, £97m to Scotland and £59m to Wales.

A further £100m will be earmarked for national cultural institutions in England and the English Heritage Trust.

There will also be £120m to restart construction on cultural infrastructure and for heritage construction projects in England that were paused due to the pandemic.

The government said decisions on who will get the funding would be made “alongside expert independent figures from the sector”.

Coronavirus: Emergency money for culture ‘won’t save every job’ 7 July 2020

I am definitely glad to see that the cultural sector has been recognised as having value and need for support. This is unequivocally good. The very early point I am trying to make is that there might be a way to look past and around and through the giant nationals with the loudest voices and ongoing DCMS support in the millions and with vast assets (many of whom as speaking to us via that 5 July government press release to say how happy they are) to see if it’s possible, finally, to illuminate the smaller players, the dynamic and struggling groups, the covens of freelance talent, the support companies, and basically everyone else who isn’t one of the biggies.

Staring into the status quo

I chatted about this with a few arts-related friends, and Clare directed me to a report called The Art of Dying written in 2005 by John Knell. I hope everyone who’s dispensing funds has studied it and can recite it from start to finish. It’s a response to a conference held the year before, where these three main insights were born, and I quote:

1. That the portfolio of arts organisations in the UK has become too fixed

2. That there are too many undercapitalised arts organisations, operating at near breaking point organisationally and financially, whose main preoccupation is survival diverting their energies from the central mission of cultural creativity

3. That we need to provoke a more challenging public conversation about the infrastructure supporting the arts in the UK, and the strategy and modus operandi of arts organisation

The Art of Dying

I really like what Mr. Knell is writing in this paper – it’s definitely worth your time to read it. It’s important to be able to look at each other and agree that an organisation with £1,001,693,000 worth of assets is stable. Or bloody well should be.

So interesting. 

Chatting further with more arts and culture colleagues, I was encouraged — thanks, Fiona — to reframe the question to: Who Needs It The Most? This is a much harder question. I’d consider myself to be a true friend to all museums everywhere, but I have to admit I particularly love the small ones that are super fucked, and definitely don’t have £1,001,693,000 hiding away in real estate or other investments that are difficult to access because there’s some form of governance in the way of deciding to release them. 

As I look at the big, open, reported numbers, I will also be on the hunt for the numbers hiding in plain sight, or not documented at all. And please, if you can direct me to good reporting on arts and culture networks and their funding, I would absolutely love the steer.


  1. I’m not quite sure I follow the argument that “an organisation with £1,001,693,000 worth of assets is stable” – these big museums presumably have high operating costs (eg all the staff), which the grant-in-aid doesn’t cover, as it’s topped-up by trading income from exhibition tickets, shops, etc. The notional value of the buildings and the collection are irrelevant, on the assumption that they never can or should be sold.

    The British Museum annual report seems to suggest that their cash reserves were pretty minimal:

    > The balance at March 2019 of £9.0m represents cover of just over 1 month (2018: £8.7m, just over 1 month).

    I’d agree though that it’s important to make sure our smaller museums and cultural organisations are financially supported through this, as well as the big ones!

    1. Hi Frankie!

      Great – I’m glad you disagree! I’d expect nothing less. It’s curious, isn’t it. This question of stability, as it relates to scale. The big orgs need more resources, for sure, and I agree that they shouldn’t start selling buildings etc without a very good reason and agreement all round. But… I’m just interested to poke at that a bit when there’s an actual emergency, like now. Do we save the elephants, or the gnats? Or both? How do we differentiate? How do we see the gnats that are amazing? How do we find the gnats that are just as proportionally unstable, but with far less security? Assets can be borrowed against.

      I’m obviously early on in the process… building spreadsheets by hand, possibly looking at the wrong numbers, so do keep tabs. And tell me why I’m wrong 🙂

      You know I like taking potshots at the BM. It’s just so big!


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