Feb 15, 2024 3 min read

Arts Council says free speech and controversy is fine, but please follow a detailed risk assessment first

Arts Council England has responded to criticism over updates it made to its policies around reputation risk, which includes guidance on political statements made in a personal capacity by people who work with or for funded arts organisations

Arts Council says free speech and controversy is fine, but please follow a detailed risk assessment first

Arts Council England has issued a statement about a recent update to its 'relationship framework policies' that amends guidance for organisations it funds around 'reputation risk'. That, the updated policy states, includes the reputation risk of political statements made "not just by the organisation and its decisions but also by staff and other individuals associated with the organisation acting in a personal capacity".

The changes have prompted further debate about the relationship between politically active creators and government funding for the arts, following the news hip hop group Kneecap had been blocked from receiving export support because of the politics of their output. 

On the updated ACE policies, Marcus Berdaut from theatre company The Upsetters wrote on X, "Not only are they trying to silence organisations but also people operating in a personal capacity too". Following a report by Arts Professional, others in the creative community have also argued that the new ACE guidance - and especially the reference to individuals speaking out in a personal capacity - is basically a restriction of free speech. 

In a list of the kinds of things that might cause reputation concerns, ACE identifies any “activity that might be considered 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".

In its statement, ACE insists that "our guidance 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 – including in ways that challenge institutions and authorities”. 

“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".

"We recognise the specific concern that’s been raised on social media around references in the updated relationship framework to individuals, especially artists", it goes on. 

"Again, to be absolutely clear, we fully respect and defend the rights of individual artists to freedom of expression, political or otherwise. However, in practice, we understand that some individual artists – for example, Artistic Directors – are strongly associated with the organisations for whom they work, and as a result, their personal positions may be taken to be those of the wider organisation".

"Therefore, if individuals working in public-facing positions in cultural organisations are planning to undertake activity, even in a personal capacity, that might be deemed controversial, the guidance advises that they discuss this with their board, in order to agree a plan to mitigate any risks that might arise. Once again, such decisions are matters for organisations and their boards or leadership groups, not for the Arts Council". 

Both the updated policy and the new ACE statement insists that the funding organisation champions freedom of expression. Explaining the rationale behind the policy update, it adds, "The intention of the refreshed relationship framework is not to prevent individuals from expressing their political views, but to support artists and organisations with tools to ensure that this is done in a such a way that it does not result in unintended consequences, or distress for others associated with the organisation". 

With Kneecap, it was funding from the government backed Music Export Growth Scheme that was blocked by the Department Of Business & Trade because of the politics of the group’s music, in particular their support for a united Ireland. 

A spokesperson for the government department said they did not want to hand taxpayers' money "to people that oppose the United Kingdom itself". The group are now pursuing legal action against the government in relation to the intervention. 

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