What is "Arm's-Length" Funding?

Some writings on what an alternative model of government funding, in particular arm's-length funding, might look like.

From the Recommendations of the Arts Engage Position Paper on Censorship & Regulation for the Censorship Review Committee 2009-2010

Replace the current system by one where there is a clear separation of regulation and censorship.

This may seem obvious. And indeed, there is any number of more specific recommendations concerning procedures and content that have been discussed and could be made here, for instance mediation. But for all the complex debates over the nitty-gritty of standards and classification, for as long as regulation remains compromised by censorship, little will be changed, and even less achieved in developing the creative life of the nation. Conversely, a principled argument for the separation of regulation and censorship by the CRC would have some or all of the following consequences:

  • A process that is consistent, clear and transparent, which is conducted at arm's-length from party political interests, whose outcomes are open to public scrutiny, and that enjoys the engagement of diverse stakeholders.
  • A process that is ordinary, unexceptional and efficient, conducted by informed and impartial individuals whose decisions can inspire confidence across government, and who can explain and justify those decisions in public.
  • A process that focuses on the education and empowerment of citizens, and grants the widest possible scope for expression and access to creative works to the greatest possible number of interested individuals.
  • A process that promotes a new tone, vocabulary and terms of reference for public discourse, and that both encourages and contributes to free and open debate about the complex issues inevitably arising from it.
  • A process that avoids conflicts of interest by the agencies charged with executing it, and that is subject to periodic review by an independent body.

IPS Seminar: Singapore’s Cultural Policy: Authenticity, Regulation and Stratification, by Dr Ooi Can-Seng, Associate Professor, Creative Industries Research Centre, Copenhagen Business School

An Alternative Funding Model for the Arts: The Government and “Arm’s-Length” Funding

Dr Ooi then spoke on the factors leading to Singapore’s current lacklustre arts scene and the difficulties local artists currently face. He began by discussing the present position of the government vis-à-vis the local arts landscape. The government’s role should be to ensure that artists receive sufficient funding so that arts communities may build up their capacities and not end up financially reliant. However, he also noted that funds disbursement must be thought through  carefully. The  present  system, where the  government  disburses  funds  to  artists directly, is unsatisfactory  as  it  oftentimes places the  disbursing  agency in a beleaguered position. Pleasing everybody with a “little pot of money” is a thankless endeavour, he said.  In such a scenario, artists compete against one another for funding allocated by the government rather than to cooperate with each other, noted Dr Ooi, and there are times when a decision to fund a certain artist may be interpreted as favouritism by others. Often, the end-result for the disbursing authority is to suffer displeasure from all stakeholders.  Authorities would then have to bear the brunt of complaints and the system is stuck in what he called an “administrative iron cage”.
In light of such issues which are already occurring in the Singapore context, Dr Ooi suggested that an artist-governed council be in charge of allocating government-disbursed funding for the arts. He cited the system’s effectiveness in Europe, calling it a “win-win situation” where authorities  avoid the political cost  of being selective while still supporting the arts. The advantage of such a system is that artists are also held accountable to the public for works that they fund, he said. Artists, who are best placed to gauge the needs of the community, may also prioritise the gaps most in need of plugging within the community with funds available: in a given year, they may decide to fund a new art magazine or artist travel grants. To maintain collegiality within the community, and also to insure the council against charges of favouritism, members of the council are appointed on a one-year basis through a random ballot. Such a system provides its own checks and balances and benefitted society, he said.

The Patron State in The arm's length principle and the arts: an international perspective - past, present and future, by Harry Hillman Chartrand & Claire McCaughey

The Patron State funds the fine arts through arm's length arts councils. The government determines how much aggregate support to provide, but not which organizations or artists should receive support. The council is composed of a board of trustees appointed by the government. Having been appointed by the government of the day, trustees are expected to fulfill their grant-giving duties independent of the day-to-day interests of the party in power, much like the trustee of a blind trust. Granting decisions are generally made by the council on the advice of professional artists working through a system of peer evaluation. The arts council supports the process of creativity, but with the objective of promoting standards of professional artistic excellence. The policy dynamic of the Patron State tends to be evolutionary, responding to changing forms and styles of art as expressed by the artistic community. The economic status of the artist and the artistic enterprise depends on a combination of box office appeal, the taste and preferences of private donors, and grants received from arm's length arts councils.

The very strength of the arm's length arts council is often perceived as its principle weakness. Fostering artistic excellence is often seen as promoting elitism, with respect to both type of art work produced and audience served. Support of artistic excellence may thus result in art that is not accessible to, or appreciated by, the general public, or by its democratically elected representatives. In most Patron States there are recurring controversies in which politicians, reflecting popular opinion, express anger and outrage at support for activities that are, for example, perceived as politically unacceptable, pornographic or appealing only to a wealthy minority.

With an arm's length council, however, politicians can claim neither credit for artistic success nor responsibility for failure. Great Britain is the best known example of the Patron State. Government adopted the role of Patron during World War II by creating the Committee for Education, Music and Art for raising morale during the Blitz. After the war it created the Arts Council of Great Britain and its sister agencies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The role of Patron evolved out of traditional arts patronage by the English aristocracy. The government continues the Patron role, even though various task forces and committees of Parliament have recommended incentives to enhance charitable giving.

The Arts Council of Great Britain has experienced controversy concerning art not acceptable to the general public. Such was the case in 1983 when an irate citizen set fire to the "South Bank submarine" created from used tires by sculptor David Mach. The Arts Council had funded the work to the tune of £50,000.