The past ten years have been peculiar times for the arts. Under the Labour government pots of money were thrown at culture. But strings came with this funding, requiring art to serve political ends. While there has been cash it has been less for culture and more for schemes promoting social inclusion, community issues and urban renewal.
Rather than rebel against these demands the Arts Council has been at the vanguard. As a consequence, artists needing support have had to jump through hoops asking more about their sexual identity than about the art form. This has contributed to high-profile failures, as the purpose of projects became disorientated. These include the Public in West Bromwich, which was erected in our name but failed to ignite people’s interest, and other white elephants, such as the unpopular National Centre for Popular Music. A lot of money has been wasted.
At first the calls for the chop were only whispers behind the scenes. Then, in the spring, a closed-door colloquium brought together arts leaders with the chief executive, Alan Davey, for a frank exchange, concluding with an informal vote on its future. The majority of attendees proposed abolition.
Soon after, the increasingly prominent right-wing think tank the New Culture Forum published a report, ‘The Arts Council: Managed to Death’ by Marc Sidwell, advocating that it be removed and that the nine regional arts councils be directly funded by the Department of Culture Media and Sport.
Since then, there has been a cascade of criticism at every step the council takes. Arts professionals, policy wonks and journalists have lined up to complain that it funds the wrong bodies the wrong way, that it’s too politically correct — or not correct enough — that it isn’t making judgments — or that it is making too many — and that it should go, with mutterings about government taking on the responsibility. And, adding fuel to the fire, in the past few weeks a row has erupted between Liz Forgan, chair of Arts Council England, and the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, over the proposed appointment of former Evening Standard editor, Veronica Wadley, to a senior position, with both sides accused of cronyism.
As a long-standing critic of the Arts Council I never thought I would stand up for it. But the time has come to state the case for the defence.
The shrill chorus calling for abolition is wrong. Handing over funding responsibility to the DCMS would be a mistake. The culture department is all about measuring the ‘evidence’; trying to prove the arts have an ‘impact’, mistreating them as if they were a science at their service. The DCMS cannot spell art, and is more philistine and instrumental than the Arts Council could ever be. Sidwell’s solution would invite more Stalinist political meddling, at local level as well as national.
It is time we valued what it could do, rather than removing it altogether. Instead of cutting the beleaguered organisation and handing over power to the politicians we need to restate its founding purpose.
In a civilised society public subsidy is required if the arts are to be supported; especially the new, difficult or risky, and the public should be able to see the work. It is not good enough to rely on sponsorship or philanthropy to ensure this happens. The primary function of the Arts Council, when it was established in 1945, was to patronise the promising artists of the day, so that ordinary people could experience them.
John Maynard Keynes, instrumental in its foundation, stated that, unlike the NHS or other national institutions, the purpose was not to socialise, teach or censor, but to free up the artists and, as a consequence, give ‘universal opportunity for contact with traditional and contemporary arts in their noblest forms’.
This commitment required the ‘arm’s-length’ principle, which asserts the independence of artists and arts bodies from state interference. Over time, initially under the Tories during the Thatcher years, this arm’s length was transformed into arm-twisting and no longer really exists, except in name. It should be reinstated and honoured. We need an organisation to allocate funds and support the arts which has the expertise to make decisions about what should be valued — at a distance from politicians. This is the role of the Arts Council.
Of course, judgments will be made that people will argue over. Indeed, we should all be involved in a broader discussion about what work is considered important and why.
After 12 years of a Labour government, the models and principles of arts funding are ripe for examination. With the beady budgetary eye of the Tories, quangos and expensive projects are likely to be jettisoned. It is vital that we don’t give them the head of this important body but instead have a creative discussion about how to improve it. It is time for all good men to come to the aid of the Arts Council.
Tiffany Jenkins is arts and society director of the Institute of Ideas.