Wanted: A Keynesian Vision for the Arts

The Arts Council started with a tiny budget and a mandate to lift the postwar gloom. Now this meddlesome quango has lost its way and its chair, Liz Forgan, must go

Art Features Music Theatre

“I do not believe it is yet realised what an important thing has happened,” said John Maynard Keynes, presenting his last inspiration in July 1945. War-weary and mortally ill, the great economist had just told Churchill’s outgoing Cabinet that Britain was facing “a financial Dunkirk”. It had no foreign reserves, no industry, no shipping, a lack of raw materials and a debt to America that would take 70 years to pay off. Bread rationing, averted during the war, was now imperative. And, said Keynes, I want half a million pounds to set up an Arts Council and splash out on fun. He got almost half of what he asked for — £235,000.

The case that Keynes made for the arts was that the looming threat of national insolvency called for nothing less than “the greatest enterprise, ruthlessness and tact”. Britain must tap into its dormant creativity and revive public morale with a flourish of invention and entertainment. Merrie England was to be the cure for post-war blues. On June 12, 1945, as his Arts Council of Great Britain was introduced to Parliament, Keynes at a press conference talked of “restoring to the nation something it should never have lost”. Speaking on the BBC, he explained:

State patronage of the arts has crept in. It has happened in a very English, informal, unostentatious way — half-baked, if you like. A semi-independent body is provided with modest funds to stimulate, comfort and support any societies and bodies…which are striving with serious purpose and a reasonable prospect of success to present for public enjoyment the arts of drama, music and painting.

Dead inside a year, Keynes cannot have imagined how swiftly his vision would be fulfilled. A nation lampooned across Europe as das Land ohne Musik, a culture of shopkeepers, was about to be transformed from scratch. The Royal Opera House, with a £25,000 grant, held open auditions in town halls up and down the country to cast its early productions. Many of the singers in Fairy Queen and Carmen had never seen an opera in their lives, let alone sung in one. Yet six years later, the house produced a commanding performance of one of the most difficult modern masterpieces, Alban Berg’s Wozzeck; and, within a decade, its home-baked singers were appearing at Bayreuth and its dancers were the toast of New York.

Small cash injections yielded astonishing returns. London orchestras, poor before the war, now earned the respect of Toscanini and Furtwängler. Edinburgh emerged as the Salzburg of the North. The Royal Court nurtured Angry Young Men — John Osborne, Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker. A National Theatre was suddenly on the cards. In less than 15 years from the initiation of small-scale state funding, Britain was a world power in the performing arts.

The sums dispensed were minuscule — £2,000 for an orchestra — and the manner informal. John Denison, the council’s director of music from 1948 to 1965, would get a call at times from David Webster, the Covent Garden manager, asking him to drop by after dinner for a chat. On a fine night, the pair would take a stroll down Weymouth Street and Webster would confess that the box-office was a bit low: “I don’t know if we can pay the wages next week,” he’d mutter. Next morning, Denison would send him an Arts Council cheque for £1,000 as an advance on the next year’s grant. “That’s how it was done,” he told me. “No forms to fill, no fuss.” 

Autres temps, autres moeurs. Public administration has moved on. Today, a senior official biking round an unvetted advance would have the fraud squad on his doorstep before the banks opened. The original cash dispensers, many of whom I met in the 1990s while writing a book on Covent Garden, applied the make-do culture they had picked up in the war and were rewarded, if successful, with a promotion from supply side to demand. Denison, a former horn player in the London orchestras, went on to become an excellent general manager of the three South Bank concert halls. 

Success in the arts fuelled ambition, yielding increased investment. Over 65 years, an experimental grant of £235,000 (£9.4m in 2010 values) ballooned fifty-fold into a £450 million annual settlement by 2010. The arts depended on subsidy and the Arts Council functioned as a government inspectorate, its arms-length independence shortened to a fingernail. Establishments seldom plan for the unexpected. When the banking crisis hit in 2007, the council had just commissioned a ten-year strategy plan. The process sailed on regardless and the paper mountain was finally produced in November 2010, apparently unaffected by recent reversals, such was the stasis and confusion into which the core function of arts funding had descended.

The axe fell upon the arts in October 2010 in two unequal blows of unprecedented ferocity. At the high noon of the long knives of the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, the museum and gallery sector got off relatively lightly with a 15 per cent trim over four years, a reduction that most directors felt could be absorbed within general efficiencies and without damage to major departments or exhibitions. The British Museum, the Tate franchise, the V&A, National Gallery and other grand edifices quietly congratulated each other on having mobilised board members with political connections to explain their cause to ministers. Visual arts were the big winners in Osborne’s demolition derby.

By contrast, the Arts Council (shrunk to Arts Council England) behaved like a kitten chased by city urchins: it scuttled up a tree and refused to come down until the park was empty. Theatres, orchestras and the opera houses emulated the museums and rallied business allies. The ACE chair Liz Forgan, a former media executive who headed the Guardian Media Group and Heritage Lottery Fund, maintained radio silence and her chief executive, Alan Davey, was unable to remember key facts and figures under cross-examination by MPs. When the Osborne decree was announced, the ACE was singled out for humiliation. Not only did the Chancellor slash its funds by 29.6 per cent, twice the museums’ cut, he also limited the impact on “frontline” companies such as the ROH and National Theatre to 15 per cent and ordered the ACE to halve admin costs. The Arts Council stood before the bar of Parliament as one of the least efficient public bodies. But instead of showing contrition and offering resignations, Forgan and Davey fought on, trying to protect its programmes and jobs at the expense of grants to arts bodies. More than a quarter of its spending was still reserved for non-arts activities. Despite paying lip-service to the need for more private sponsorship, the lobby group Arts and Business had its ACE subsidy removed. The flagship had lost radio contact with the fleet. “What’s wrong with the Arts Council?” was the first question I was asked when testifying on arts funding before the House of Commons select committee on culture, media and sport. 

There was no short or easy answer to hand, since the decline was long and endemic. The Arts Council served, in certain ways, as a mirror of national fortunes, a chart of the zigzag voyage of the good ship Britannia in the decades since the war. In the austerity era, arts grants were frugal to a penny but some clients were always more favoured than others. By 1960, the ROH was receiving 87 per cent of its budget from the council. All it had to do was ask nicely. The council itself doubled its money under the chairmanship of Lord Goodman, a heavyweight lawyer (in every sense) who acted privately for two prime ministers, Harold Wilson and Edward Heath, and enjoyed an intimate friendship with the arts minister, Jenny Lee. In the Sixties it was spend, spend, spend; in the Seventies, moan, moan, strike. Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power in 1979 signalled a culture shift from state funding to increased private donations to the arts, along American lines. “There are people in government who would have us abolished,” an Arts Council chief warned me over a rather good lunch. But under the leadership of the Tory peers Palumbo and Gowrie, the Arts Council encouraged large arts bodies such as the ROH to adopt a mixed economy — one-third box-office, one-third private funds, one-third state. That formula is now the desired model for many European arts institutions.

Under New Labour from 1997, the Arts Council turned again with the political wind. Tony Blair’s electoral mantra of education, education, education prompted a new demand from arts ensembles: they would have to teach as well as perform if they wanted to be considered for state subsidy. A cartload of political correctnesses was appended to this first extraneous condition. From now on, arts audiences would have to be measured to meet social inclusion targets. Arts companies had to employ statutory numbers of minorities and disabled people. Glyndebourne, which receives a grant for its touring opera (the main house is proudly self-financing), was made to put senior staff through equality training — a ludicrous exercise with a highly-paid consultant who reduced one executive to tears over her admitted reluctance to hire a morbidly obese assistant. Ever larger chunks of ACE budget were spent on compliance officers and management consultants. Davey, a Culture Department official who had never said no to a minister, was installed as chief executive. Where the council was once a friend in need, ever ready with tea, sympathy and unofficial help, it was now seen as a political police force, out of sympathy with the creative instinct. During one crisis meeting at English National Opera, the ACE monitor threatened to shut them down.

Staff at the Arts Council, once keen graduates who went on to lead the Tate (Nicholas Serota) or London orchestras (David Whelton, Kathryn McDowell), were now overpaid BBC discards or Whitehall Labour policy wonks. 

Worst of all was the all-shall-have prizes policy. Chamber orchestras, never previously funded, were deemed to be entitled to subsidy because big bands got it. Symphony orchestras, hitherto judged on merit, were now awarded equal amounts. Three London orchestras seethed as a fourth, notoriously lax in rehearsal and safe in programming, received identical subsidy. The all-shall-have-prizes policy amounted to an abdication of the ACE’s responsibility to reward merit and discourage mediocrity. 

Why bother, many wondered, to maintain an Arts Council that no longer spoke for the arts or acted in their best interest? During the 2010 election campaign, the Tory Culture Secretary-designate Jeremy Hunt pledged to absolve the ACE from abolition. It was not a battle worth fighting in the first term of a new administration and probably not a good idea. What is needed in the arts is a thorough review of funding priorities, one that recognises excellence and enterprise and removes all distraction and extraneous causes from the vital process of sustaining an industry that gives the country wealth and prestige far beyond the amounts invested.

So what would Keynes have done? I won’t attempt to read the mind of a man who died before I was born but there are themes within his shrewd and beautiful vision that are as relevant today as they were when he uttered them. Keynes’s first concern was arts for all: “We look forward to a time when the theatre and concert hall and the gallery will be a living element in everyone’s upbringing.” That means making sure that every part of the country is well served and no child leaves formal education without some exposure to the possibilities of culture and creation.

The creative renaissance, Keynes argued, must be artist-led. He spoke whimsically on the radio of the artist “who walks where the breath of the spirit blows him. He cannot be told his direction. He does not know it himself. But he leads the rest of us into fresh pastures and teaches us to love and enjoy what we often begin by rejecting.” In other words, the Arts Council exists as a god of small beginnings, a sponsor of new artists of all kinds and a propagator of their work. There was a just complaint to the Commons committee from David Lee, the editor of the visual arts newsletter The Jackdaw, that the ACE sponsors only one kind of contemporary art — conceptual — depriving other artists of an airing. These petty tyrannies are inevitable in a large, unaccountable bureaucracy.

Nowhere in Keynes’s prescription is there mention of the large organisations that grew organically from his mission. These big beasts have since outgrown the Arts Council, as well as making itself bigger than it needs to be. They are the start of my ten-point plan to reform arts provision and make it fit for purpose. 

1 The big beasts

The Royal Opera House, English National Opera, National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company, receiving between £12 and £28 million, need to be funded directly by government, in the same way as the big museums and galleries. Their budget increases should be pegged to the Education Department’s. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport should give the Mayor of London £20.7 million to administer the South Bank Centre, which was paid for by and belongs to the people of London.

Removing the big beasts from the ACE not only slashes a large monitoring team — work that can be done by two low-paid Whitehall officials — it sends out a signal that the council exists for the grassroots, the new beginnings, the enterprise that will revive British arts. A ceiling of £2 million should be placed on ACE grants. Anything bigger is a government matter.

2 No company can be too big to fail

It is 30 years since the Arts Council last axed a large funded company, Kent Opera. That rigour must return. If an arts body outlives its usefulness or gets into deep deficit, it must be allowed to die. It is completely unfair for the grass roots to be penalised for the misdemeanours and failures of large companies. 

3 No more equality funding

London orchestras receive roughly the same grant, even though two of them outperform the rest. The Arts Council exists to judge art on merit. It should support the good and deny the unworthy.

4 Spread art fairly around the country

The south-west — a Lib Dem stronghold, and one of the poorest regions — has no theatre or orchestra provision. East of Cambridge — prosperous and high-tech — has very little, either. Under Tory governments, the ACE boosts country towns, under Labour the industrial heartlands, notably the north-east. 

The ACE must send art where it is most needed. Cornwall needs state support; in Cambridge, industry can help out. 

5 International art in the national interest

Keynes created the conditions for London to become a world capital of creativity. Work of the highest quality will always take place where there is the greatest concentration of population and creators. London is in a class of its own, the nation’s shop window and the only UK city to produce work of consistent world class. Investing in London’s arts yields is repaid many times over in foreign revenue. Every film, every play, every concert series, earns national prestige and export orders.

In the coming years, regional orchestras and theatres will have it tough since they are least well equipped to attract private, corporate and overseas funding. The ACE must do its utmost to sustain the fine orchestras in Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and the south coast. 

But provincial provision must not be made at the expense of the nation’s centre of excellence. London cannot come last in the shareout.

6 Cut the paperwork

Under New Labour, theatre managers spent as much of their time filling in forms as they did in the rehearsal room. Directives on equality, social integration, education and quota fulfilment landed with thudding regularity. None of these objectives related to art. New companies opted out of the state system in order to avoid the bureaucracy. 

The arts, innately concerned with equality and social benefit, don’t need to be told to support the underdog. They must be relieved of the burden of box-ticking. Abolishing directives will win instant and overwhelming support, as well as slashing the ACE payroll.

7 Redefine devolution

Arts Council England delivers hidden subsidies to companies in Scotland and Wales to pursue audiences in England. English National Opera is not allowed to play in Oxford, for instance, because the city belongs by ACE orders to the Welsh National Opera. These devolution deals need to be torn up and rewritten. Scotland and Wales can afford to support their own national companies. 

8 Reward success

Not just artistic, but economic. The conductor Sir Neville Marriner won a Queen’s Award for Industry in recognition of his subsidy-free orchestra’s touring and recording activities. We must encourage more such entrepreneurs.

9 Engage with the BBC

The national broadcaster is the second largest subsidiser of arts after ACE, often duplicating its activities, especially in the north-west. There is no co-ordination, no dialogue between ACE and BBC. That silence must be broken.

10 Education, education

Music and art, taught properly at primary stage 1, yield outstanding Sats results in physics and maths at stage 10. A Scandinavian model exists to apply the benefits of art to education. It should be adopted by the Cultural and Education Departments. ACE should be relieved of its responsibilities for education and a theatre’s outreach work should no longer be a condition of receiving subsidy.

It is unrealistic to imagine that these reforms can be conducted under present management. The ACE is in dire need of new leadership, not just a new chair and chief executive but a different tier of senior staff who come into the job free of old shibboleths. It requires root and branch reform and there is no shortage of public-spirited individuals who will step up to the plate when it becomes free. Forgan’s and Davey’s immediate response was to invent a new set of bureaucratic tasks, a job-saving scheme that required every arts organisation to reapply for its funding — an insult to the entire sector that required the National Theatre, along with the tiniest fringe group, to explain its raison d’être.

Can the arts survive the coming years of hardship? Of course they can. Of all industries the arts are the most resilient and, by definition, the most innovative. But their struggle will be greatly eased by having an Arts Council that is on the side of the arts rather than the enforcers, a partner in production and a sponsor of renaissance. It is time to set the arts free of most funding conditions.

Not long ago, an ACE loyalist singled out in its defence the million-pound mechanical object known as the Sultan’s Elephant that was imported in 2006 and paraded through the streets of London as “the biggest piece of free theatre ever seen”. It certainly gave much enjoyment. But sponsoring French circus acts is not what arts funding is supposed to do. The aim must be to stimulate native ingenuity and improve the national mood. The ACE’s incompetence at these tasks has long been the elephant in the Whitehall room. It’s time for a second Keynesian revolution, one that will liberate art from the arts bureaucracy.