Arts Council England’s stance on “overly political” artists comes under fire

The government-funded organisation, which distributes public money to arts projects, recently changed its guidance on political matters.

16 February 2024

Arts Council England (ACE) has faced widespread backlash from the creative industry after changing its guidance on working with artists who make “overly political” statements. The criticism came after Arts Professional reported that changes had been made to the organisation’s Relationship Framework guidance for 2023-2026, wherein ACE encouraged funded organisations and artists to be mindful of making statements about “matters of current political debate,” and warned that any “overly political statements” made could breach the terms of the funding agreement.

Following an overwhelming response across the arts sector, ACE released two statements on 14 and 15 February to clarify its position on freedom of expression, in the latter stating it would publish an updated version of the Relationship Framework as soon as possible. The organisation said the changes had originally been made in response to “requests for guidance” from cultural organisation leaders and to “refresh its framework on managing reputational risks”.

In the statement, the public body acknowledges that “for a cultural sector to thrive, freedom of expression – personal, artistic and political – is indisputably vital,” sharing that its guidance doesn’t intend to “stop any artist or organisation from making the art they want to make [...] including in ways that challenge institutions and authorities” but that “individual artists” who are “strongly associated with the organisations for whom they work” should speak with the organisation before making personal statements to mitigate risk.

The changes bring one question to the fore: where will the line of “overly political” be drawn and for which particular political stances? They also seem to challenge the obvious notion that art has always been inherently political. On X (formerly known as Twitter), UK-based arts charity for underrepresented youth, Arts Emergency, said that ACE’s decision was “chilling for the culture in general” and “will necessarily have an appalling impact on the young working-class people we support, already at risk of their work and identities being deemed ‘too political’”. Others have voiced concerns that it could be a timely exercise in censoring support for Palestine – or giving organisation heads the ability to censor its associated artists for their support. Meanwhile, others pointed out the organisation’s U-turn on artists’ positions on war, with Furaha Asani quoting a post by ACE made in March of 2022, stating that it was pleased “so many cultural organisations and practitioners are showing solidarity with Ukraine”.

The topic of censorship has been of particular controversy this week, as the Irish rap trio Kneecap posted a statement on X on 8 February stating that their Music Export Growth Scheme (MEGS) funding was revoked by the government, which the group believes is due to the Conservatives being angered by the poster artwork for its 2019 Farewell to the Union tour. To which the Secretary of State for Business and Trade Kemi Badenoch’s spokesperson stated that they didn’t want to give funds “to people that oppose the United Kingdom itself”. The group have plans to sue the government for this action.

As many publications and artists are stating that art has always been political, and this is a step toward censorship and a lack of freedom of expression, ACE has come out to say that it is adamant that what we have is a “lack of nuance,” online and in the flurry of news reports over the past few days. The statement says: “artists and organisations are working in a way that is more polarised than ever before,” with particular reference to conversations on social media.

The second ACE statement also stated that the body would reflect after feedback on social media in the past few days, and that the language used “was open to misinterpretation”.

You can read the Relationship Framework here and both ACE response statements here.

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About the Author

Yaya Azariah Clarke

Yaya (they/them) was previously a staff writer at It’s Nice That. With a particular interest in Black visual culture, they have previously written for publications such as WePresent, alongside work as a researcher and facilitator for Barbican and Dulwich Picture Gallery.

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