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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Now the Arts Council really has lost the plot

By Norman Lebrecht / December 21, 2007

If ever a closing argument was needed for Arts Council England, its hapless leadership provided it this week with a chaos unequalled in 60 years of state subsidy.

With the air of a man leaving a job well done, outgoing chief executive Peter Hewitt announced that, despite an improved Treasury grant 194 arts organisations will have their funding removed in April, with the likelihood that most of them will cease to exist.

The names of the unfortunates were not officially published in order to allow them to make ‘representations’, which is ACE-speak for lobbying MPs like crazy to have the verdict overturned. Nor was the reason for their severance overtly artistic. On the whole, the axe is falling on those who failed to satisfy the Council’s political targets for more ‘diverse’ audiences and education drives.

Under New Labour, the ACE gave up its role as ambassador for the arts and became an enforcer of reverse discrimination on behalf of minorities and English regions. Its last claim to credibility was greater efficiency in distribution, a pretence that has now been blown out of the water by the current confusion. This is an organisation that makes Northern Rock look prudent and Gordon Brown a master of presentation.

Nothing in the current allocations inspires public confidence. The ACE will continue to support the mult-imillion cash guzzlers – South Bank, Covent Garden, National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company and English National Opera – regardless of whether they perform well or, as in ENO’s case, with serial ineptitude as one show after another falls flat into a drizzle of desultory applause.

The ACE is continuing to fund four symphony orchestras in London, refusing to tackle the question of whether London still needs four big bands and whether they should receive exactly the same amounts as each other when three are plainly on the up and the fourth is merely treading water. Two chamber orchestras, the London Mozart Players and City of London Sinfonia, are heading for the chop although, as a close observer of the concert scene, I was not convinced they deserved funding in the first place, nor can I see why they deserve it no longer.

The ACE allocation process has become as warped as a postcode lottery, with the northeast of England, a Labour heartland, receiving more investment than it has audience potential and the southwest being subjected to progressive starvation. Central London, the nation’s artistic engine, is untouched by the axe, but peripheral venues like Brentford’s arts centre, once a model operation, have been earmarked for execution, along with a host of experimental theatres and tiny venues whose elimination cannot be justified in terms of cash saving.

Contrary to its founding charter, the Arts Council is neglecting to stimulate grass roots and failing to monitor in any constructive manner the progress of national flagships. ACE is an organisation that has outlived all usefulness and will soon lose its last pretence of independence.

The incoming chief executive, Alan Davies, is a senior Culture Department official who has never said boo to a secretary of state. His brief is to name a lapdog chairman to succeed Sir Christoper Frayling, to yoke the ACE to Olympic priorities and quietly to dismantle some of its PC excesses. A report commissioned by Culture Secretary James Parnell from the former Edinburgh Festival director Sir Brian McMaster, will attack the ACE’s recent record and accelerate its demolition.

The present chaos is the harvest of ten Blairite spin years. What comes next is an era of Brownite control, crushing the creative nation beneath the heavy hand of central government. The Arts Council this week has written its own obituary.

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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