Poor old Arts Council England (“ACE”) is finding itself under fire from all directions again.

The cultural community was already in uproar following not just spending cuts but also the directions in which money has (or more significantly has not) been siphoned. Most recently, the Royal Court announced it is in such a bind that it may have to ditch its writers programme, a model for others from a theatre which has prided itself on championing New Writing since the 1950s. It is hardly alone, with most theatres cutting back on programming and staffing due to financial constraints that are only likely to get worse now that we are officially in a (technical) recession.

An article in The Guardian on Wednesday referring to ACE’s latest debacle refers to “artists [reacting] with fury to message about funding risks”. In what appears to be an outrageous attempt at censorship along Gary Lineker lines, ACE warned organisations it funds that they must be wary of “overtly political activist” statements.

It is hard to overstate the threat that this presents in the context of many theatrical productions, where political statements are common and the thought police could find overt intention behind just about anything if they tried hard enough—and they may.

To put this into context, a spokesperson for culture warrior Kemi Badenoch, the UK Business Secretary (why her rather than the Culture Secretary, Lucy Fraser?), pontificates that they did not want to hand taxpayers’ money to “people that oppose the United Kingdom itself”. Such was the outrage from an assortment of authors, musicians and other interested parties from the creative arts including Feargal Sharkey and Robert McFarlane that ACE was forced to backtrack, at least to a degree.

“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,” ACE said on Wednesday.

“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.”

It added that, while it respected and defended “the rights of individual artists to freedom of expression, political or otherwise”, in practice, it understood “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.”

Interested parties were far from impressed by this climbdown with the actors’ union in the vanguard. Equity’s response is printed in full.

We are deeply concerned that the effect of the Arts Council England’s new guidance for funded organisations will be to censor the work that organisations produce and present, and most worryingly, attempt to silence artists both on stage and in their personal lives—especially those working in the activist or political space.

The confused statement issued on the 14th February by Arts Council England does little to allay those concerns, and indeed singles out Artistic Directors as being legitimate targets for censorship by organisations.

The updated Relationship Framework places an undue burden on artists, warning that "activity that might be considered to be overtly political or activist", including activity by “individuals associated with the organisation acting in a personal capacity” can cause "reputational risk" and breach funding agreements.

Far from protecting artists, it sends a clear message to discourage the creation of art that is political, and to avoid full participation in civil society if you are an artist who wishes to work with Arts Council funding.

Arts Council England is subject to political pressures from the government of the day, and its new guidance will allow it to divest and disassociate itself from artists who speak truth to power.

Artists and arts organisations should be free to critique institutions of power or bring attention to issues without fear of losing their funding. Rather, the Relationship Framework should clearly state that attempts to censor artists and their work presents a substantial risk to organisations and their funding, alongside enhanced guidance on protecting best practice in areas of equality & diversity, and dignity at work.

We have written to Darren Henley, Chief Executive of ACE, to raise these concerns, asking for this section of the update to be immediately withdrawn, and for the Arts Council England to work with the relevant unions on suitable guidance in this area.

Even that wasn’t the end of the fast-moving saga, as ACE acknowledged the strength of feeling against the guidance and announced that it would “publish an updated version” as soon as possible.

This must be seen in the context of the Soho Theatre incident during which a comedian, who deserves no name recognition and has now been banned, was accused of anti-Semitic behaviour towards his own audience. Truly, we live in troubled times.

While many of those in the cultural sector were already deeply dissatisfied with the performance of the government’s funding body, they are apparently not alone. This week, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport announced that it is to conduct a full-scale review into ACE. One wonders whether this might be gesture politics, given that any review on this scale is unlikely to be completed before a general election later this year.

It is hard to know where this will end, but times are very tough for almost everyone working in theatres or aspiring to do so. One has to hope that we will eventually emerge from recession and see the appointment of a more sympathetic Minister for the Arts who appreciates the value of the sector and allows it to flourish.

In the meantime, all that most can do is batten down the hatches, cut costs, keep our mouths shut and hope for the best.