When the scrapping of the UK Film Council was announced last year, Britain’s pre-eminent miserablist film director Mike Leigh claimed it was like “abolishing the NHS”. Since then, various figures have kept up this line of hyperbole and have been in overdrive since the funding cuts to the arts were made public in April. Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate, has claimed that the withdrawal of the Arts Council grant from the Poetry Society “touches the realms of the disgusting”. In similar vein, Alan Bennett has commented that the closure of libraries is a form of “child abuse”.
For all their claims to be “cutting edge”, challenging and provocative, telling it like it is, etc, etc, these spokesmen for our arts “community” must have led sheltered lives if they really believe their own overwrought claims. Either that, or their estimation of their own importance far outstrips that of the average spoilt Hollywood movie star.
The truth is that the Arts Council England cuts were at the very most moderate, a drop in an ocean of waste and pointlessness. Not that that matters; the narrative of “savage cuts” by nasty and predictably philistine Tories has already been established. There was, however, one satisfying statistic among all the cherry-picking: the Institute of Contemporary Art, which sits at the other end of the Mall from Buckingham Palace, had its funding cut by 40 per cent. It had hitherto received £1.3 million a year from the Arts Council, a quarter of its income. Two years ago, the ICA was bailed out by the Arts Council to the tune of another £1.2 million. Its high-profile director, Ekow Eshun, resigned last year after presiding over the increasingly beleaguered institute for five years, during which time he blamed its financial woes on (guess what?) the recession and sponsors going bust. But there was much criticism of the way the place was run, and at one point staff held a no-confidence vote. For a while it was facing closure.
The Arts Council bailout averted that. But if it meant the spending of yet more public money, the throwing of good after bad, shouldn’t the ICA simply have been left to close its doors and quietly fade away?
We are constantly being told that the contemporary art scene in London is dynamic, vibrant and an important cash cow for the capital. Could not some of the moguls and philanthropists who clog up the summer party at the Serpentine Gallery, for example, have been called upon to stump up the much-needed cash? Perhaps they are more interested in associating with the mindlessly popular Tate Modern or the socially cool Frieze Art Fair.
Which raises the question: what is the ICA actually for now? There it is on the Mall: forlorn, irrelevant and largely ignored. It appears to function chiefly as a nice drop-in stop-off for culture vultures. That’s all fine, if a private somebody is happy to pay for it. But nothing should come from the public purse. The Arts Council should have cut its grant completely, and if it then had to close, I’m sure almost nobody would notice it was gone.