In the last few months, regional arts boards have increased -in
some cases doubled - the size of their in-house communications
Most recently, Yorkshire and Humberside Arts decided to reinstate an
executive-level communications chief (PR Week, 5 February) after three
years without a PR chief.
East Midlands Arts is seeking to double its in-house capacity with a new
publications officer and a part-time PR and media officer, while the
London Arts Board is looking for a research and information officer to
complement its existing three PR staff.
These moves coincide with the Government’s increasing commitment - on
paper at least - to devolving arts policy-making to the regions.
The most tangible sign of this so far was last December’s decision by
the Arts Council of England to boost by 11 per cent the Treasury grant
for the ten regional arts boards to directly fund projects from
The Arts Council has also handed funding control of 30 organisations to
the regional boards. The West Midlands Arts Board will now fund the City
of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, one of many big orchestras to pass
from the Arts Council to the regional boards.
April will also see regional arts boards given the sole right to
allocate Lottery cash grants of under pounds 10,000 for the first
The sum total of the Government’s policy means that, by April 2002, arts
boards will have an annual funding power of pounds 122 million. If
nothing else, increased direct grant-making powers and responsibility
for some of the leading brand names in the orchestra world will give the
boards a higher profile.
But it will also embroil them in defending more controversial funding
decisions - an idea PROs do not seem to have taken on board yet.
Local journalists will automatically turn to them, rather than the Arts
Council, when the annual funding awards are made. And the more direct
grant-making powers the arts boards have, the more arts organisations in
the regions are likely to turn to them for PR and grant-bidding
’Devolved funding will give us a much higher profile because we’ll be
responsible for the arts schemes and funding decisions. We can take a
more strategic, planned approach to our PR activity,’ says Viola von
Harrach, who was appointed as South East Arts’ first full-time
communications officer a year ago.
But the changes in funding are just part of a wider bid by the Arts
Council, under its new chairman Gerry Robinson, to proactively improve
the image of arts grant-making across the country.
Outgoing Arts Council communications director, Phil Murphy, who will
soon be heading the Labour party’s PR team in Millbank, waxes lyrical on
the extent to which music, drama or literature affect other policy
areas. Sounding already very ’on message’, he mentions the impact of the
’creative industries’ on economic growth.
Murphy sees it as the mission of both the Arts Council and the arts
boards to communicate this to the public and decision-makers.
’We’re becoming a more strategic national body and at the heart of that
is speaking out for the arts, which we’ve failed to do. What’s happening
in the regions is a reflection of that. The arts boards are preparing
for being busier, but also for being more proactive,’ Murphy says.
Until recently this new campaigning role was absent from public sector
arts PR, which undoubtedly dented the image of the arts funding
Reflecting this, Murphy admits that, had he not been lured away by
Labour, he would have hired a political big-hitter to take on advocacy
for the arts within Westminster and Whitehall. This plan may not end up
bearing fruit, but it has nonetheless filtered down to the regional
More cynical observers of the arts PR scene feel that Arts Council PR
policy being handed down from on high to the regional arts boards is not
exactly a sign of devolved power and greater independence for the
Indeed, some argue that moves by boards like Yorkshire and Humberside to
appoint communication heads are nothing more than attempts to copy the
Arts Council, which itself appointed Murphy as its first communications
director last year. This misses the essential fact that, regardless of
the rationale behind the appointments, arts boards which were without a
PR chief will now have one.
Arts boards are not the only regional arts organisations upping their PR
efforts. Birmingham’s contemporary art showcase, the Ikon Gallery,
received a pounds 4.5 million launch grant in the first round of major
Lottery awards. Ikon then hired Hobsbawm Macaulay to PR the launch.
The experience led Ikon director Elizabeth Macgregor to suggested Ikon
and fellow regional arts schemes join forces to collectively pay for a
’We are lucky if we get one national review a year. Getting national
coverage gets us national prestige and that has an enormous effect on
attendances and sponsorship,’ Macgregor says. A sobering thought for the
increasingly swollen ranks of regional arts boards PROs.