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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

London needs to form its own arts council

By Norman Lebrecht / October 3, 2007

The final rites were administered last week to the founding principle of British arts funding. In Scotland, an aggressively secessionist government announced new laws to replace the arts council with a state-run ‘cultural agency’. Wales is mulling a similar move while England abolished any pretence of arm’s-length independence by appointing a Yes Minister official from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to be chief executive of Arts Council England, effectively its terminator.

Even if Alan Davey, 46, were to experience a Damascene conversion on the short stroll from his present desk in Trafalgar Square to the new one in Great Peter Street, even if this check-shirted civil servant with a pash for modern dance were to shake off career-long deference to politicians and recant every kind word he ever said in support of the hapless Tessa Jowell, nothing can now reverse ten years of New Labour erosion that transformed Maynard Keynes’s creation from an enlightened investor in arts to a bleak enforcer of government targets on social equality, education and minority integration.

The Keynesian Arts Council offered tea and scones to bearers of good ideas; the newer model is widely disliked. Replacing its chief enforcer, Peter Hewitt, after ten grim years, a panel headed by chairman Sir Christopher Frayling had a clear-cut choice between Sarah Weir, a brisk ACE official who holds the London portfolio and stands for continuity, and Davey, who holds the culture brief at DCMS and stands for stolid, second-rank obedience. In the event, they probably made the right decision. Change is urgently needed in the way Britain sustains its arts and better coordination between government and grant allocators might be a good solution.

But what will become of us? wail chamber ensembles, pottery centres and poetry publishers up and down the land. Who in the new structures will understand our traditions and our needs? Have no fear, little ones. Nothing will happen overnight, but what should emerge by the 2012 Olympics is a method of joined-up arts funding that ought to work better for everyone – except, disturbingly, for London.

An integrated DCMS-ACE would, in the first instance, abolish the present anomaly by which museum and gallery directors negotiate their grant directly with government while performing arts have to go through the hoop of an arts council before they see the writing on a cheque. Divide and rule has been the way Britain has managed its arts since the war, so much so that while the director of the National Portrait Gallery can quote the current grant of a gallery on Tyneside to the nearest decimal point, he will struggle to come within two million quid of English National Opera’s stipend just across the road. Visual and lively arts occupy separate realms. Scotland’s move to fund all creative activity, including film, from a single, coordinated source makes sense for England, too.

Because it dealt directly with visual arts, government was able to take nationwide initiatives, some good, others less so. The abolition admission charges to museums and galleries, imposed in 2002, has yielded an unforeseen 85 million extra visitors. The treasury concession on tax gifts, on the other hand, has been too little and, for some major works, too late to prevent an export sale.

Nothing of even limited coherence has been managed in the performing arts. Plans to allow arts groups to sharpen up teaching methods in schools fell between departmental fissures. The newly announced, dismally predictable programme for Liverpool’s 2008 Year of Culture – Macca, Ringo, Rattle and Turner Prize – would have benefited from greater coordination across art forms and a guiding hand from government. What would it take to stage dance on a regular basis in the Tate’s Turbine Room, a heaven-sent venue? If all Alan Davey does in his new job is get lively arts talking to visual, the loss of independence may be bearable; there is a warm view among arts leaders that he will be a more sympathetic and intelligent listener than the departing Hewitt.

There is, though, one potential big loser. Over the Blair-Brown decade, the ACE has bent over backwards to favour English regions (especially the north-east) at the capital’s expense. Over the same period, the arts in London have boomed as never before, a chaotic profusion that bypassed ACE directives, exploiting the cracks between policy bodies by pretending at a ‘national’ status that lacked much substance. That subterfuge will become tougher as DCMS and ACE converge.

Davey is a northern rock from Billingham, committed to access, inclusion and the equalisation of resources. Coordination has been his watchword in government. That spells bad news for London. A revitalised DCMS-ACE will represent a bias towards provincial activity and against cosmopolitan excellence.

London needs to find a voice at the heart of this process. The Mayor of London’s arts department is marginal and the head of culture for 2012 is a box-ticking inclusivist. What London needs is nothing less than its own arts council – a body outside government that speaks for all the things that London does better than the rest of the country, and better than any city on earth.

All it requires is seven phone calls. Put together the powerful chairmen of the British Museum, the Tate, the National Gallery, the South Bank, Covent Garden, the Barbican and Sadlers Wells and you would have an independent forum that spoke with authority and public support for London and its creativity, an essential counterweight to the overwhelming juggernaut of government control. What are they waiting for? London needs an arts council of the highest calibre, and it needs it now.

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


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