By the people, for the people

The Arts Council began life as a market-place; Keynes turned it into a temple. Time to throw open the doors, says Anthony Everitt
Click to follow
The Arts Council is 50 years old this year. It ought to have a great deal to celebrate. The arts are one of Britain's few undoubted post- war success stories. But the anniversary will pass quietly. Public subsidy of the arts is still controversial. Governments hold back from funding them adequately, backbenchers snipe and the media mock. Informed commentators wonder aloud whether subsidising the great cultural institutions is altogether necessary.

Elsewhere in Europe, the arts are financed more generously and there is warm popular approval. So what has gone wrong here? For an explanation, we need to go back to the Arts Council's origins.

During the Second World War, worries about morale on the home front led to the creation of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (Cema), a domestic alternative to Ensa, which looked after the entertainment of the troops. Cema had two purposes - to encourage amateur arts and "those who are making music and acting plays for themselves, because [of] all that this means to their own morale", and to ensure that professional artists were given work. There was an integrated view of culture as including all kinds of creative activity.

Cema's primary task was to serve the public rather than the artist. One typical scheme was the appointment of "music travellers", people who roamed the countryside encouraging local music-making and promoting concerts.

The Cema experiment was a triumph. Once it was clear that the Germans were facing defeat, social idealists began to plan for peace. One of their ideas was to make public subsidy of the arts permanent, and the Arts Council of Great Britain was born.

But all had not been golden in the Cema years. Despite the focus on amateurs, the well-known actors Lewis Casson and Emlyn Williams had already been approached to set up a professional repertory company to tour the regions; there had been fierce quarrels about decentralisation. Should Cema's central office make all the decisions, or should its authority be devolved to local groups and activists?

The chairman-designate of the new Arts Council, the economist Maynard Keynes, stepped into the middle of this row. Keynes did not believe in popular culture but in excellence, and wrote: "I was worried lest... the welfare side was to be developed at the expense of the artistic side, and standards generally." Where Cema had spoken of "the encouragement of music-making and play-acting by the people themselves," Keynes's draft objectives for the Royal Charter spoke of the need to improve "the standard of execution in the arts" and encourage "an adequate system of professional training".

He was not quite allowed to get away with it. People like Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose work made use of popular artistic traditions, mounted a rearguard action, and the draft was watered down. As well as "artistic practice", the final result also advocated (as it still does) the fostering of "knowledge" and "practice".

But it was a hollow victory. In the years that followed, the new body abandoned the amateurs and the education sector. After 10 years or so it closed its regional offices. It ignored what it saw as the vulgarities of mass culture. It reacted with deep suspicion to the Community Arts movement when it arrived in the 1960s.

Keynes died before the Arts Council was officially set up, but his successors agreed with him that their job was to extend professional practice and increase attendances. They achieved almost everything they set out to do. Today's artistic vitality is in large part thanks to them - the opera boom, the wealth of fine orchestras, the network of regional theatres.

But it has come at the cost of cultural dislocation. The arts are widely seen as litist. The amateurs have been isolated from aesthetic innovation. With some wonderful exceptions, community arts have been marginalised. Little attention has been given to commercial culture, in particular to rock and pop.

What this means is that large natural constituencies of support feel excluded from the state's idea of art. In 1991 a survey estimated that 53 per cent of the population take an active part in at least one arts- related, cultural or craft activity. As for audiences, the arts centre that matters to the great majority is the wired-up living room, with its television, CD and video recorder, not to mention the CD-rom. Here the Arts Council and, despite its best efforts, the British Film Institute, have had little impact.

But if the arts funding system had been given a wider brief, would it have made much difference? Experience in other countries suggests that it would. In northern Europe, for example, rock and pop are part of the responsibility of Ministries of Culture. In Denmark there is a conservatoire for training in rock and jazz, and another for African-based improvised music and dance. In Holland, nearly 150 music schools and over 70 "creativity centres" provide training for amateur artists. In Finland, 50 composers have recently been commissioned to write new music for use in schools.

Culture is seen as an integral part of the welfare state; the wishes and tastes of all citizens have to be catered for, not just those of the professional artist. In Finland, Denmark and Holland, funding the arts is as uncontroversial as paying for a national health service. Standards seem to be high and so are grants (in each case, culture's share of overall public expenditure is more than 1 per cent). Even the artistic community, which in this country is in an almost permanent state of mutiny, is more or less happy with the way things are done.

The best way to mark the Arts Council's first half century is to acknowledge that Keynes, its master-builder, got the design wrong. He constructed a temple, not a market-place. It is not too late to re-build.

n Anthony Everitt was the secretary-general of the Arts Council from 1990 to 1994