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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The elephant in the Arts Council room

By Norman Lebrecht / October 25, 2006

Even in the Gadarene rush of Blairites leaving Whitehall ahead of the Gordon Brown regime, the mass exit from Arts Council England seems almost indecently hasty.

Gone, in one lemming leap, are the heads of theatre, dance, literature and visual arts - four of the five art forms funded by the council - along with executive director Kim Evans, development director Pauline Tambling and the officials in charge of touring, combined arts and public affairs. The chief executive Peter Hewitt will not renew his contract, which ends in 2008. In all, 30 posts out of 200 are being scrapped at a £1.8 million annual saving – and ACE is keen to convince us that it is all part of some long-term strategic masterplan.

‘It’s the last chapter in the restructuring that (ex-chairman) Gerry Robinson set in train eight years ago,’ said chairman Sir Christopher Frayling yesterday, anxious to play down talk of crisis and disintegration. ‘Having devolved a lot of powers to the region, the role of the national office has changed and we had to look at it again.’

So, the cull is nothing to do with a hostile government report telling the council to be ‘more about the arts, less about itself’? No connection either with speeches by Culture Minister David Lammy calling for a slimdown? ‘It’s not a response to the peer review, or to Lammy,’ says Frayling, and his chief exec nods so agitatedly in the neighbouring armchair that I fear precipitate self-decapitation. ‘It predates them both,’ confirms Peter Hewitt drily.

Seen in the kindliest light of a rainy morning, the departure of most senior managers from any organisation would suggest that it had either been misrun or that it was intent on self-abolition. Frayling and Hewitt hotly deny both imputations. The inadequacies, though, are self-revealing. In the course of restructuring, all five art form directors were told to reapply for their jobs, augmented with a few decorative trimmings. Three of them failed the interview, one declined to attend and only Hilary Boulding, head of music, gets to keep her seat in a boardroom where she will recognise virtually no-one.

Those of us who have warned that the Arts Council was careering towards irrelevance by adopting New Labour slogans and imposing political correctness will find some vindication in the bloodletting but no cause for rejoicing. The past decade of paper shuffling has left the ACE with little to show for itself apart from a flurry of non-arts initiatives and a largely phoney devolution.

Among the political add-ons is a Young People at Risk programme. Among the artist opportunities created are a stint in Bangalore with a pharmaceuticals concern and a £1,000 a month placement with a wind turbine firm.

As for devolution, the newly shrunken ACE will restrict itself to determining only grants of five million pounds and upwards to a handful of national organisations, 15 in all. The rest, says Hewitt, ‘is devolved to the regions.’

But what, I wonder, would ACE do if the supposedly autonomous North West awarded four million quid to the soaring Halle Orchestra and sixpence to the troubled Liverpool Phil? ‘There’s everything the Council would do,’ says Hewitt briskly. ‘There is a national parameter for orchestras. Should a region go completely awol in terms of grant decisions, national council can overrule them.’ ‘We have a watching brief across the whole system,’ echoes Frayling. The suspicion prevails that in order to justify its own continued existence, ACE will keep the regions on a tight leash.

Its other function will be to act as pressure group on government in the interest of the arts. Both Frayling and Hewitt give Boulding credit for persuading the Treasury to drop a crippling back-tax threat to orchestras. Hewitt wrestled with the Department of Transport to remove security restrictions on carrying musical instruments onto aircraft. ‘That kind of role is way beyond funding and can only happen from a national Arts Council,’ he insists.

The rewards of political acquiescence are measured in hard cash. State funding for the arts doubled under New Labour, topping half a billion pounds a year, and that’s without Lottery top-ups. ‘Bottom line,’ contends Frayling, ‘one of the major roles of the Arts Council is to get as much money into the arts as it can. It has done that. The ACE has tried to take a bird’s-eye view of all the sectors and distribute the money in a sensible way. It has done that, too. If you didn’t have an Arts Council, you would have to invent it.’

Among recent sponsorships, the one that caught the public eye was the million-pound importation in May this year of the Sultan’s Elephant, a 42-tonne, 40-foot high mechanical invention of a French street-theatre company that stopped traffic in central London and was seen by a million passers-by. Opinion split as to whether it was art or entertainment but that kind of controversy has dogged many of the Council’s deeds ever since Maynard Keynes formulated its post-war Charter. If the metal beast fired the creative imagination of just one child, it would have been money well spent.

The trouble with the Arts Council under New Labour is that, like government, it applied too much energy to policy papers and too little to public delivery. Diminished now and deeply demoralised, it has an elephant of its own in the room: the prospect, officially unutterable, of its own abolition.

Most of its tasks could easily be reallocated - the 15 national companies to the Department of Culture, the political lobbying to the National Campaign for the Arts. Popular as it was, the Sultan’s Elephant has proved something of a Trojan horse, letting the enemy of freethinking into the walls of a crumbling institution. This latest cull is not the final curtain for the Arts Council, not quite. But unless Frayling and his unannounced new set of directors devise a more coherent purpose, the next overhaul will be Brownite and brutal.


Bowing out gracelessly, Mutter’s away Anne Sophie Mutter’s announcement of her imminent retirement has provoked few expressions of surprise or regret - a silence the more remarkable since she is the first concert star to quit in years for reasons other than physical or mental debility.

‘It is my plan to stop when I reach my 45th birthday,’ said the German violinist, which leaves her just 20 months to play. Spotted at 13 by the Berlin conductor Herbert von Karajan and groomed as a kind of musical Steffi Graf, Mutter won world ranking with a Deutsche Grammophon record deal and 120 gigs a year.

Icily accurate, she avoided eye contact with audiences and hated giving encores but in an art short of star quality she managed to fit the bill. Orchestras paid her the highest going rate for a soloist – 50,000 Euros for a 20-minute concerto.

In 1989 she married a wealthy Karajan lawyer, only to be widowed at the age of 32. A short second marriage to Andre Previn, his fifth, ended discreetly this summer. She lives in Munich with two teenaged children.

Why she has to go, as the Beatles would have put it, I dunno – she wouldn’t say. Nothing to do with Previn, she insists: they remain good friends. Nor is there anything else is the offing by way of media or business ambitions. Mutter has made enough money out of music to live in comfort for the rest of her days and maybe that is all she has ever wanted.

Music is either driven by passion, an emotion she has seldom evinced, or by hunger, which she never knew. My suspicion is that the super-perfect player simply found it all too easy and got bored – bored of playing concerts that were booked four years in advance, bored of fish-faced audiences and egregious sponsors, bored of superlatives hurled at her by acolytes who know nothing of the effort that goes into perfection, bored finally of the sounds she herself was making. ‘I will try to remain faithful to my artistic ideals,’ she declared in valediction. Let silence be her epitaph.


CD of the week Miaskovsky: Symphonies 6 and 10 Ural Philharmonic Orch/Dmitri Liss (Warner)

Nikolai Miaskovsky (1881-1950), once named Father of the Soviet Symphony, is now a forgotten man. A 1917 Bolshevist, he drew hour-long applause in 1924 for a morbid and mildly dissonant sixth symphony which ends in a bright-and-beautiful choral finale – utterly unconvincing but an important period piece. His tenth symphony of 1928 was written for the conductorless Persimfans band, a Marxist model for the orchestra of the future. There are 27 symphonies altogether.

None of them amounts to a row of Prokofiev, Shostakovich or Khatchaturyan; neither form nor expression is truly original. But Miaskovsky is a master of musical structure and these performances, by a remote Russian orchestra, are as good as it gets.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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