Time to Abolish the Arts Council

Labour's "golden age" of the arts has turned into a bureaucratic nightmare of political correctness, waste and incompetence

Marc Sidwell

In March 2007, in one of his last-ditch attempts to define his legacy, Tony Blair gave a speech at Tate Modern. In it, he announced that his leadership would be regarded in history as a “golden age” for the arts in Britain. He was wrong. The fact that he chose to give the arts such prominence in a political speech should prove the point.

Under Mr Blair, the arts were taken all too seriously. The results have been dismaying. Artistic freedom has been compromised and the central body for the state funding of the arts, Arts Council England (ACE), the main successor of Maynard Keynes’s post-war Arts Council of Great Britain, is in crisis, having lost the confidence of many of those it was designed to assist. In 2009, a straw poll among some key arts figures found the majority in favour of scrapping the Arts Council altogether and a minority in favour of radical surgery. No one felt it could remain as it was.

The arts world’s disillusion is justified. The council is no longer the organisation it once was. Spending too much on administration, stripped of arts expertise and politically correct to a fault, it has been reformed to the point where it no longer works. It is time to abolish it altogether at national level.

Of course, the past 12 years have seen both artistic achievement and some exciting new galleries and concert halls, including the New Art Gallery Walsall and the Sage Gateshead. But the “golden age” has involved utter disasters at vast expense: the £15 million National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield — insolvent within seven months of opening — and the £60 million “pink elephant” of Will Alsop’s Public Gallery in West Bromwich, finally cut loose by the Arts Council earlier this year and described by Shadow Arts Minister Ed Vaizey as “the biggest arts scandal for decades”.

Moreover, part of the myth of Blair’s artistic golden age — that state funding was greatly increased under his aegis — is simply that: myth. John Major’s contribution in creating the National Lottery was far more significant. Arts funding almost doubled between the financial years 1994-1995 and 1995-1996, thanks to boosted National Lottery income. Its level then remained roughly constant. Between 1996-1997 and 2006-2007, total Arts Council income from both the Lottery and direct state funding rose by just 2.6 per cent, from £575 million to £590 million.

The difference in the Labour years was not so much that arts funding was increased in large amounts but that direct state funding increasingly replaced the new Lottery money, so that by 2006-2007, most of the money came from the state’s grant-in-aid and not the Lottery, reversing the earlier ratio. That was a double disservice to the country, first by choosing to finance high levels of arts funding, ever controversial, from compulsory rather than voluntary taxation, and second because the justification for direct state funding now had to be made in increasingly instrumental terms.

The government embraced this politicisation of art, made plain by Culture Vultures: Is UK arts policy damaging the arts?, a collection of essays edited by Munira Mirza in 2006 for the think-tank Policy Exchange. As its publicity announced, “Politicians today often claim that the arts are now not only good in themselves, but make a vital contribution to the economy, urban regeneration and social inclusion… This collection shows that many of the claims made about the social benefits of arts are exaggerated, resulting in wasteful projects of poor artistic quality.”

The conclusions of Culture Vultures are now widely accepted. But there has been little contrition. Recent attempts to distance the government from the early heights of its instrumental attitude to art remain unconvincing. The new attitude, not so very different from the old beneath the surface, can be seen in the 2008 McMaster Report. Commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), it calls for a return to artistic excellence as the main criterion for funding — an open admission that other values had previously been ascendant. But the report has not really learnt anything: it still sees excellence through the lens of social cohesion and instrumental justification, as in this ominous sentence from section 1.3: “I would like to see diversity put at the heart of everything cultural.”

Such top down, one-size-fits-all interference is bad for art — and bad for artists too, as they are increasingly realising. In 2005, ACE warned: “We will closely monitor…your progress in meeting your race equality objectives, and future funding may include considerations on the ability to meet your race equality targets.” Alan Riding, European cultural correspondent for the New York Times, commented: “In other words, go multi-ethnic or risk bankruptcy.” As of 2008, ACE went on to demand, contrary to DCMS advice, to know the sexuality of board members in applications for funding. Christopher Hampton called it “bureaucracy and political correctness gone mad”. Michael Frayn suggested it was as foolish as boxes for “how many wear black socks or brown socks”. In early 2008, 500 of the country’s top actors staged a vote of no-confidence in the Arts Council over its funding decisions, demonstrating publicly that the body designed to serve artists was now seen by some as a frustration best avoided.

This is unsurprising. Blair and Brown failed the arts by being content to keep arts funding from the government high, so long as the arts pot was spent in a quest for social impact. But their administrations also failed to solve the problems in the funding mechanism itself which the higher levels of funding — and the existence of a Department for Culture — made ever more obvious. The Arts Council, begun in a different time and at much lower levels of funding, even in real terms, was simply not equipped to cope with its new reality of increased funding from the mid-1990s onward. That became most visible in the mismanagement of major capital projects. By 1999, a highly critical National Audit Office report found that of 15 major arts projects costed at some £300 million, six were seriously over budget and nine were behind schedule and seeking further funds as a consequence. The total cost overrun was £94 million.

By then the government had appointed Gerry Robinson as Arts Council chairman, a no-nonsense managerialist, who believed, like many in government at the time, that universally applicable management techniques were the answer to the council’s problems.

However, the council is a unique body, designed to be kept away from government influence by the arm’s-length principle, operating on the basis of expertise and public service. The combination with management consultancy proved toxic. Hard-hitting reforms drove out the Arts Council’s expertise, while its immunity from oversight provided a veil behind which increasing sums were diverted from funding the arts to paying for bureaucratic salaries and office expenses.

The loss of expertise is shocking. A review commissioned by ACE reported in 2008: “There needs to be a significant reinvestment in arts skills and experience across the whole organisation.” But such expertise is the sole justification for the council’s existence — it has historically been granted funds and protected from oversight on the grounds that it will then be free to choose among applicants on an expert basis. Two bruising internal reorganisations of the Arts Council have left it ill equipped for its essential purpose. It is hard to see how tinkering any further can make things better. Funding will not become arts-centred again without completely rethinking how such funding is to be delivered.

The evidence of the Arts Council’s increasing spend on administration costs only serves to emphasise the point. In 2005, the arts researcher Charles Morgan reported that over the previous six years, despite a cost-cutting reorganisation in 2001, Arts Council salaries had grown by 66 per cent and the chief executive’s salary by 93 per cent. In November 2008, ACE was employing more press and communications officers than Sports England, UK Sport, the Museums and Libraries Archive and English Heritage combined. Overall, administration costs appear to have grown from some 4 per cent of the ACE budget in financial year 1994-1995 to 14 per cent by 2006-2007. Inevitably, arts practitioners are the losers, as less money flows through the system to reach its intended destination. Britain’s arts funding is in urgent need of reform. The question is: will a new government have the courage to make the necessary changes? David Cameron looks likely to be our next Prime Minister, but his shadow arts team is often reluctant to rock the boat. The new Conservatives, it sometimes seems, are as keen to portray themselves as a safe pair of hands for the arts as New Labour once was for the economy.

What is needed is a bold new settlement for the arts in Britain, that encourages arts bodies to diversify their funding and secure endowments for their own independence, and simplifies the funding streams already in place, wasting less money and encouraging greater artistic freedom.To begin that process, we need a wide-ranging National Audit Office investigation into how taxpayers’ money has been spent on questionable political goals on the basis of weak or twisted evidence. For instance, from 1990 to 1999, Britain erected more public statues than in the 80 years between 1910 and 1989, mostly aesthetically insignificant works put up in pursuit of poorlydefined instrumental goals such as civic cohesion, with little evidence of any meaningful social impact. Faced with such waste and distortion of purpose, we also need to look more closely at the US  model of funding through tax deductions and private giving. State funding is a recent innovation — and one that Keynes himself thought would soon become unnecessary.

Other ways of funding highquality art are possible, and the success of independent institutions like the Royal Academy and the Art Fund in the UK already demonstrates the point. Where state funding for art remains part of the mix, the national Arts Council should be disbanded. It needlessly duplicates DCMS roles, invites politicisation through the power of arts ministers to appoint its members, and muddies the independent decisions of the existing regional arts councils. Responsibility for funding the great national performing companies should become the direct remit of the DCMS, in the form of non-departmental public bodies, exactly as the major museums already are.

Any fears that the DCMS would be more overtly political in its handling of arts funding than the old arrangements should be allayed by the pre-existing example of museum funding, and by the knowledge that the department will be operating in the full glare of public scrutiny. But for further protection, the DCMS should take on a new, central responsibility for defending artistic freedom.

We live in a time where artistic freedom is under threat, from violent protest and from heavyhanded government interference, whether in the name of community relations or simply the dread words “Health and Safety”. For too long, only the voice of public safety and control has been heard, especially within government, and not the voice in defence of the public square and the artist’s liberty. With DCMS as the voice of freedom of expression, it could make the case within government and to the public for controversial work — and would be bound by this new duty from interfering in the arts itself.

Finally, great art is always made by passionate, daring individuals. To celebrate that, we need a privately-funded annual prize that grants money directly with no strings attached to one exceptionally talented British artist. Thinking afresh about how to fund the arts in Britain must place the emphasis on free, individual, creative talent, and not on funding committees or service to a national project. The Arts Council and government have lost track of this essential truth. It is time to recover it again.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"