Don't forget to pay for the artists

Aside from a few small bursaries, the arts funding system does not recognise human beings
Click to follow
TODAY, AS the Arts Council distributes nearly pounds 2,000m to arts companies across the land, Sir Peter Hall will be preparing to leave the country. One of Britain's greatest theatre directors is taking off to direct a Shakespeare season in Los Angeles. It will be diverting, and the weather is good; but in truth he doesn't madly want to go. He'd rather be in London running the Old Vic - a theatre that has been bought for the nation but cannot afford an artistic director and repertory company. So he's off to the United States, and one of our great theatres is rudderless.

We may love the arts in this country, but we don't seem terribly keen on artists. The Arts Council spends not only pounds 200m each year on the performing arts in annual grant, but also a further pounds 200m in National Lottery money. And it spends virtually the lot on buildings, institutions and companies, from the Royal Opera House to the small local concert hall and arts centre. No one has thought to spend even a fraction of this sum on people - something that is regularly done in the scientific community, with top scientists taking grants with them if they move from one institution to another.

Aside from a few small bursaries, the arts funding system does not recognise human beings. Yet what is the arts if it is not the presentation of talent, and what is talent if it is not the genius of individuals? Theatre, opera and dance companies change as their artistic directors change. Some get better, some get worse, but their funding tends to remain the same.

The manner in which the money is distributed has shaped our attitude towards culture. Companies that have annual grants and fancy names, particularly with the word "national" in the title, must intrinsically be good. But arts companies, like any other business, are shaped by the people who run them. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) became one of the world's finest because of its conductor, Sir Simon Rattle. English National Opera, though not its funding, dipped after the departure of its Eighties triumvirate of Peter Jonas, Mark Elder and David Pountney.

Last month the hottest ticket in town was the Frankfurt Ballet, which was on a brief visit to London. Few, even within the audience of devotees, could name a single dancer on stage. Everyone was there for one reason. The company's choreographer was William Forsythe, the experimental, boundary- stretching New Yorker. The same is true here, of course. The stunning success of the small Almeida Theatre is a tribute to the vision of its director, Jonathan Kent, who fought off the cynics to insist on putting on a double bill of Racine in the West End. The West Yorkshire Playhouse attracts some of the country's top actors, not necessarily because of the beauties of Leeds (whatever Ian McKellen may say) but because it has a highly regarded director in Jude Kelly. But under the inflexibility of our system, when Kent and Kelly leave their respective theatres those theatres will still go on getting the same grant and the freelance efforts of Kent and Kelly will, like the freelance efforts of Sir Peter Hall, be reliant on the whims of a commercial sugar daddy. To paraphrase Flanders and Swann: we don't fund people. Won't fund people. Funding people is wrong.

Sir Peter Hall asked the Arts Council for exactly pounds 500,000 to run a company at the Old Vic. He was told that he didn't stand a chance, for the bizarre reason that there was already "enough serious theatre in London". Yet today the council will announce a multi-million-pound increase for the Royal Opera House, which does not even have an artistic director yet.

Of course, arts companies should not simply lose their funding when a maestro leaves. The CBSO, even without Rattle, is a formidable orchestra and should be encouraged to maintain its international prowess. But we should be making just as big an effort to hold on to Rattle. What I would like to see is, side by side with the usual funding of companies and buildings, a sum ring-fenced for people. The talent fund of say, pounds 5m, would allow proven cultural leaders, such as Hall and Rattle, to form their own performing ensembles, run festivals, or do whatever takes their fancy. Who could object to staking some public money on their vision?

Indeed, we could go considerably further. Why don't we use this stream of public money to play the international field as soccer clubs do. Let's try to tempt William Forsythe over here with cash to start a dance troupe. Let's get Peter Brook back. But we won't. People are liabilities. They don't have boards and committees. They take risks and they are unpredictable. They are artists. And there's nothing that scares our arts funders more.