Responses to ACE National Portfolio funding expose systemic racism

Image credit: Paul Ayre This article, written by Kevin Osborne, is also published on his LinkedIn page.

It appears Arts Council England (ACE) has achieved a significant improvement in the proportion of its funding going to Black- and Brown-led* organisations. We need to support them in going still further to achieve racially equitable funding in the arts.

In ACE’s announcement of its 2023-26 National Portfolio investment, it said 8.4% has been allocated to Black- and Brown-led organisations, up from c.2.4% in the previous round. If true, this represents a far larger leap than I ever expected, especially considering the circumstances in which it was achieved.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) handed ACE a poisoned chalice to deliver on the government’s levelling-up agenda, instructing it to cut funding for London by £24m – a reduction of 15% – and to reallocate an additional £43.5m to the regions.

That left ACE in the invidious position of having to increase funding outside London while also meeting its commitment to increase funding to Black- and Brown-led organisations; most – and the largest – of which are based in London. Given these constraints, ACE has pulled off what looked like an almost impossible task and significantly increased both geographical and racial equity.

But even before the ink has dried on the funding announcements, there is a threat of a forced U-turn by ACE, which is under attack from the classical music fraternity in London.

Power at play

ACE’s funding decisions and the response to it starkly expose power at play. The speed at which major institutions have mobilised media and political engagement comes as no surprise.

The English National Opera (ENO), axed from the portfolio (albeit with parachute funding of £17m), is to appeal its settlement and has the ear of the Culture Secretary: “Chief Executive Stuart Murphy met Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan MP and told her in no uncertain terms that her numbers don’t add up. That meeting has been described by ENO insiders as ‘constructive’ and another is in the diary for a fortnight’s time while a campaign to back their cause has taken off online after being launched by singer Sir Bryn Terfel.”

The Royal Opera House (ROH) seems set to do the same or at least have backroom negotiations to improve their settlement. ROH said: “We will be discussing the details of our NPO funding arrangement with ACE over the coming months, before a final settlement is agreed early next year,” indicating there will be some pushback.

The fightback from London’s cultural institutions has started in earnest and there is every chance it could be successful in reversing what has been achieved in geographical and racial equity in arts funding.

These large institutions shout from the rooftops about their audiences’ diversity but don’t seem concerned about the overall diversity in the sector of which they are a part. When push comes to shove, their self-interest blinds them to our collective gain. They push for self-preservation under the guise of preserving cultural and artistic excellence. But this is a dangerous path to tread.


In the last National Portfolio funding round ENO received a sum that would fund the current top 25 Black- and Brown-led organisations including the Young VicChineke! FoundationAkram Khan Dance CompanySOUTH ASIAN ARTS-UKPunch Records, UD, Tomorrow’s Warriors and the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA).

As I write, the campaign to reinstate ENO’s funding has – depressingly – reached 50,000 signatories. What’s disheartening is that at least 50,000 people haven’t thought through the wider implications of continuing to fund ENO at current levels. Either that or they believe that ENO delivers more value to the UK’s creative economy, reaches greater audiences (of any ethnicity) and delivers more outreach to young people than the best 25 Black and Brown-led funded organisations.

Clearly statistics against any of these measures would never bear this out, so what they are in effect claiming is that the exceptionalism of the artform itself is worth more – and adds more – to the overall cultural fabric of the UK, than the 25 Black and Brown-led organisations in the National Portfolio combined.

This is even though there is no lack of opera or classical provision in the UK. In ACE 2018-22 investment round, classical music (including opera) received 88.8% of all music funding. The correction made in this new investment round represents a 9% reduction, which still leaves classical music and opera with c.80% of all music funding.

Another interpretation could be that the ENO leadership and supporters think the cuts should have been spread equally across opera and classical artforms. But what they forget – or may not know – is that when ACE previously tried to implement wide-ranging cuts the backlash was so great that they were forced into an embarrassing climbdown.

This time, any reversal by ACE – or more likely DCMS – would send a chilling message not only to our sector but to society at large. That Black and Brown arts and culture don’t matter. We cannot build an equitable society on the basis that some think they are so exceptional they deserve a disproportionate share of limited resources by right. There is one arts sector with finite resources which we all must share. No one artform has a right to more than another.

On any rational measure – be it the outputs of ENO v 25 Black- and Brown-led organisations, or the level of funding for classical and opera – a reversal of ACE’s decision makes no sense. It only makes sense if you think opera and classical artforms are exceptional.

Who are we and what do we stand for?

Exceptionalism was the original seed of racism. It was the rationale that allowed wealth to be transferred (or stolen) and kept by those with power. Such entrenched inequity (as any reversal would be) is the embodiment of systemic racism which poses such an existential threat to our society. Access to culturally relevant art is a human right; access to a fair proportion of our tax pound which goes to support the arts is our democratic right.

ACE must not only maintain the cuts to the major arts institutions – including classical music and opera – but also continue to reallocate funds more equitably, given the huge inequity which remains. Not to continue this redistribution it has started would be to undermine the principles we champion as a country, as a democracy and as basic human rights.

Those who oppose the cuts talk of cultural vandalism but any reinstatement of funding to classical music and opera and other traditional artforms, given the make-up of today’s society compared to 75 years ago when ACE was founded, would be social vandalism. It would constitute reinstatement of the increasingly deep fractures in our society.

We are calling on all of those who believe in a more racially and geographically equitable funding system to make our voices heard by signing this petition. Now is the time to show who we are and what we stand for as a sector and a country. If we fail now, we risk losing the gains that ACE have given us and lose the opportunity – for at least another generation -to achieve a fair funding system in the UK.

Sign the petition

Kevin Osborne is CEO at MeWe360.

 @_KevinOsborne | @My_impact_is | @TheSocialInvest

*We recognise the diversity of individual identities and lived experiences and understand that Black and Brown are imperfect terms that do not fully capture the racial, cultural and ethnic identities of people that experience structural and systematic inequality.

This article was published in Arts Professional on 21 November 2022.