A 'Renaissance' on the cheap: arts world condemns cash cuts

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The Independent Culture

There are two views of the arts in Britain, and yesterday the difference between these perspectives appeared more stark than ever. On one side are those who run the UK's cultural sector, who proclaim the nation is enjoying a golden age of artistic endeavour. And then there are the artists themselves.

More than 200 arts organisations are threatened with cuts or the removal of their funding. And performers are now saying enough is enough. Meanwhile, the Government yesterday heralded "another Renaissance" in the arts. But as the Culture Secretary, James Purnell, declared that it was time to "reclaim the word 'excellence' from its historic elitist undertones", actors declared a vote of "no confidence" in the Arts Council, the body responsible for handing out arts funding.

Sir Brian McMaster, the former director of the Edinburgh International Festival, yesterday published his review of cultural policy, Supporting Excellence in the Arts.

One of the key recommendations in the report is that all publicly funded cultural organisations remove admissions charges for everyone for one week each year, to address the endemic "it's not for me" syndrome.

Placing "innovation and risk-taking" firmly at the centre of the Government's funding strategy, Sir Brian advised that at least two artists should sit on the board of every cultural organisation, warning: "The move in recent years towards boards encompassing a variety of skills has in some places been at the expense of artistic expression."

The ten most innovative arts organisations will be rewarded under the proposals with a 10-year funding package to help them realise their ambitions.

Sir Brian said: "British society today is, I believe, the most exciting there has ever been. It has the potential to create the greatest art ever produced. We could even be on the verge of another Renaissance. So we should do all we can to make this happen. That means moving away from simplistic targets and recognising instead the profound value of art and culture in itself."

Mr Purnell welcomed the report, saying: "The highest quality and the broadest audience can go hand-in-hand." He added that the McMaster review could lead "to a fundamental change in the way we view and talk about the arts in years to come."

But while the actors' union Equity welcomed the shift, its general secretary Christine Payne said a meeting of the unions' members on Wednesday made it clear "that the theatre community has no confidence that the Arts Council is fit to judge what is excellent."

The meeting delivered a unanimous vote of no confidence in the Arts Council over threatened funding cuts to arts organisations. But Mr Purnell said: "Important as those opinions are, we do not feel that they are representative of the wider arts community."

What the artists say

"What we're exorcised about is the lack of time the Arts Council has afforded [for] appeals. The process suffers from a lack of transparency."

Louise de Winter, director, National Campaign for the Arts

"We have a right to know how public money is being spent. Who are the judges? And what criteria are used?

Christine Payne, general secretary, Equity

"Compared with other public expenditures, our sector is pretty low down as a political priority. Ministers declare that art changes lives; but it can only do so if it is actually made."

David Barrie, director, Art Fund

"The Arts Council is too close to the Government. They keep asking us to innovate, which is great: but don't cut our legs off and then ask us to walk."

Sam West, actor/director

"The Bubble has been encouraging new audiences to enjoy theatre. But as the targets are removed and excellence moves up the agenda, so we are recommended for a 100 per cent cut that will close us. The Art Council's recent public debate wasn't very public – it needs to talk to real people, not just itself."

Jonathan Petherbridge, artistic director, London Bubble Theatre Company

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