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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

The arts are coloured brown

By Norman Lebrecht / November 21, 2007

What should have been a routine board meeting six weeks ago to introduce the first full season at the refurbished South Bank degenerated into a headless rout when the chairman, Lord Hollick, announced without prior warning that he was stepping down in December, at unusually short notice.

Hollick, a Blairite media investor, was parachuted in five years ago to rescue a stalled redevelopment and is generally deemed to have done a good job, underpinning Britain’s biggest arts centre with a girdle of chain stores and eateries that yield over £9 million in rent, easing the pressure on arts budgets. With Blair gone and the Royal Festival Hall royally reopened, Hollick saw no need to stick around. Privately, he told colleagues he was getting out fast so the next chairman would have a free hand to replace Michael Lynch, the chief executive who is returning to Australia.

To sit at the head of a place where the world’s finest musicians perform night after night and the foreseeable future is financially secure ought to be a prize worth fighting for by social lions. But as Hollick clears his desk for imminent departure no serious hats have been thrown into the ring.

In the past, men and women of brains and means clamoured to join arts boards in the hope of an eventual chairmanship. In the 1970s, the Covent Garden boardroom staged Brain of Britain contests with Isaiah Berlin, the historian Noel Annan, the economist Lionel Robbins and the art expert John Pope-Hennessy arguing issues ‘sharper than any Oxbridge tutorial,’ according to one observer.

Today the ROH board is crammed with bankers, donors and hedge funds and chaired by the unobtrusive Dame Judith Mayhew who, when she retires in January, will be followed by someone even less imposing. Like the South Bank, Covent Garden awaits a new chairman. So does the Arts Council of England, which must replace Sir Christopher Frayling in the New Year. That’s all three top jobs going in British arts without a single visible contender. It is not yet a leadership crisis, more like a round of musical chairs with three spare seats and no players.

The arts chairman is a hybrid British peculiarity, combining the unpaid roles of policy maker, financial controller and emergency lifesaver. The job mounts to keeping the company on course and out of trouble, and then fighting like a cat out of hell for extra cash when it inevitably lands there.

The best chairmen in the past half-century were avuncular chaps like Lord Goodman and the Earls of Drogheda and Gowrie who were on first-name terms with half the Cabinet and had the Governor of the Bank of England in their box on gala nights. The worst were those who took the job in expectation of a knighthood. Still, base as this motive might have been, it did attract big beasts who might otherwise have drifted to naval charities and village fetes. The attraction of the arts – interpreted by one eminent chairman as a licence to plunder chorus girls – ensured that there was never a shortage of contenders.

All that has now changed. Before New Labour, boards would nominate two of their own members as chairman and government would take its pick. Tony Blair broke with convention by foisting party donors, Gerry Robinson and Colin Southgate, on the Arts Council and ROH, bringing the arts directly under Downing Street’s whip. The board no longer pick their leader.

Covent Garden expects to be told next month who its chairman will be. The South Bank has been allowed to advertise for a successor to Hollick and to hire a head-hunter, but the board has been left in no doubt that the final decision will be made in government.

Several worthy contenders, speaking to me anonymously, cited this central grip on voluntary roles as an essential deterrent. One added that that the recent appointment of a Culture Department official, Alan Davey, to be chief executive of the Arts Council would emasculate arts chairmen of their independence, leaving them no room for manoeuvre between the funding authority and the political executive in times of difficulty and disagreement. ‘The only way to survive in future is by being very, very docile,’ said one prominent abstainer.

The field has been further narrowed by political scandal. In the past, chairing an arts board carried an automatic knighthood. These days, though, a gong is worth less than a party loan and most titles look shabby and sub-prime. If the sole reward for hundreds of hours of budget scrutiny and sulky artistic directors is a Christmas card from Gordon Brown, why bother to apply?

Government flunkeys argue that increased arts funding requires increased state scrutiny; anything less would amount to a failure to protect tax money. There is also a sea-change afoot in arts policy from Blairite frivolity and slogans to a more profound Brownian seriousness, undeniably a positive trend.

But control freakery has increased under Brown and the price is now being paid in a drain of the seam of talent that was once prepared to give freely of its time, expertise and connections in the service of the arts. Three names are being picked at this moment in smoke-free rooms along Whitehall and none of them is going to match the calibre of lions past. All that can be predicted with confidence is that the next chairmen will be politically loyal. The future of the arts in Britain is being coloured deep Brown.

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



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