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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

New head for dead body

By Norman Lebrecht / December 17, 2008

I spent an hour on the phone one Sunday morning this summer trying to persuade the government’s favoured candidate not to let her name go forward as the next chair of Arts Council England. My arguments were strong, indeed irrefutable.

Under New Labour, the ACE has surrendered both its arms-length independence and its reputation for fair-handedness in funding the arts. Its present chief executive, Alan Davey, is a former Culture Department official who answers to ministerial writ. Its biggest recent initiative was to investigate its own abandonment of almost 200 arts groups for no apparent reason other than executive convenience.

A laughing stock across the arts for its political docility and ineptitude, the sole reason for keeping the Arts Council is as a shield to protect ministers from awkward questions about such predictable mishaps as the South Bank Centre’s inability to come within £16.5 million of a balanced budget, and Downing Street’s direct role in selecting its supposedly non-partisan chief executive. The ACE is, to all intents and purposes, a sham, an official cover-up and a fraud against the public interest.

Now I happen to like Dame Liz Forgan on a personal level. I admire her defence of BBC values against Birtist reforms and her frugal, public-spirited administration of the National Heritage Lottery Fund. I appreciate her willingness to render further public service in one last role before retirement. But I cannot, with the best will in the world, see what she can achieve by keeping a useless bureaucracy in business.

There is no longer need for a Keynesian nursery, or for an even-handed middleman in arts funding. The arts are a powerful part of the national economy. The major grants are keenly controlled by a government that exercises power while avoiding any trace of responsibility – the prerogative, in Kipling’s immortal phrase, of the harlot.

Forgan’s appointment, leaked well in advance, has yet to be rubber-stamped by Downing Street, whose idea it was in the first place. Ahead of that foregone conclusion, I shall wish Dame Liz nothing but the best in her new job as Gordon Brown’s front-of-house manager.

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



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