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Arts Council England issues ‘clarification’ after freedom of expression fears

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Arts Council England has been forced to issue a statement clarifying its earlier comments after fears were raised in an arts journal article that its guidance on “reputational risks” were an attack on freedom of expression.

In its statement ACE said: “In the wake of social media debate about an Arts Professional report on updates to our relationship framework for funded organisations, we wanted to clarify the reason for the changes we made, and – for the absolute avoidance of doubt – our position on freedom of expression, for artists and organisations.

“For a cultural sector to thrive, freedom of expression – personal, artistic, and political – is indisputably vital. All of us who work in the cultural sector have witnessed the effects of the stifling of artists’ free speech in other countries, and at the Arts Council we recognise our role in safeguarding this crucial right. It is something we will always strive to protect, and in furtherance of this, our updated relationship framework explicitly reiterates our commitment to artistic freedom. It is right that our funding will be used to support work that will be perceived as political or controversial.

“We also recognise, however, that the context in which artists and organisations are currently working is more polarised than ever before, and that conversations, particularly on social media, can lack nuance. Over recent years, we have all, on many occasions, seen individuals and organisations working in the cultural sector subjected to aggressive attacks for the art they have presented, the positions they have taken, or statements they have made. In this context, and in response to requests for guidance on navigating this environment from a number of leaders of cultural organisations, we refreshed our framework on managing reputational risks.

“Again, for the avoidance of doubt, 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.”

Earlier campaigners and poets had reacted on Twitter to ACE’s original words, reported by Arts Professonal. English PEN said: “We are very concerned about the updated ACE policies on 'reputational risk' and the chilling effect it may have on artistic expression. We will continue to engage with @ace_national about the impact of these updates on freedom of expression and artistic freedom.”

Poet and author Salena Godden said: “It's true ACE have lost their minds. It is as if someone in their office wanted to start fight with the entire UK arts community who now rightly argue 'what is political?' Shakespeare is political. Good luck with telling art to be numb in the 2020s.”

Po0et and educator  Matt Abbott said: “This is beyond grim. I don't want to try and picture what the UK arts scene would look like without ACE ... nor without any kind of overtly political expression ... Surely, we can't be heading in this direction.”

The updated Arts Council England statement goes on to say: “We recognise the specific concern that’s been raised on social media around references in the updated relationship framework to individuals, especially artists. 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. 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.

“We recognise the strong reaction to the piece by Arts Professional, and hope that this clarification allays the concerns around it that have been raised. We are also aware that any news article will be unable to capture the full tenor and nuance of any guidance, and that most people who have read the piece will not have read the original material. We therefore offer the guidance in full here. We are sorry if we have not been as clear as we might have been in our communication around this issue. We always keep guidance, and communication associated with it, under review and will respond to any feedback to ensure that we are as clear as we can be in what we say.”  



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Uilleam Ó Ceallaigh

Thu 15th Feb 2024 12:12

“…The guidance does, however, set out a series of steps for organisations to go through,…”
“…we fully respect and defend the rights of individual artists to freedom of expression, political or otherwise.” “However, in practice,”.

Here in the UK, we believe in academic and artistic freedom, however….....................

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