Leading article: An efficiency drive that misses the point
Tuesday 15 December 1998
Efficiency is indeed the prime purpose of Chris Smith's announcement yesterday of a new funding structure for the arts. Stripped of all the current management-speak about increased outputs and aims, what Mr Smith is really doing is reducing the number of bodies through which grants go to the arts, and centralising them.
Nothing wrong with that, although it sits uncomfortably with the Government's other declared aim of devolving power. From an efficiency viewpoint it's probably better to roll the Crafts Council into the Arts Council, to merge English Heritage and the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England and to wrap architecture into a new national body. It's also good to see a moderate increase in funding for the new bodies, along with special funds to enable museums to waive charges. The problem is with aims. Efficiency of itself is not much of an ambition, particularly when it concerns so volatile and subjective a field as the arts. Loading into the comprehensive spending review a series of generalisations about excellence and "a duty to future generations" does not help.
Ultimately what matters with arts funding is not structures but people. The first Wilson government is remembered for its commitment to the arts because of Jennie Lee. The Royal Fine Art Commission has established a reputation because its members have proved particularly open and supportive of modern architecture.
Unfortunately, this Government has not been notable for its arts appointments. Chris Smith has been confused and ineffective. Gerry Robinson at the Arts Council and Sir Colin Southgate at the Royal Opera House are both wrong men in the wrong place - examples of Blair's excessive cronyism to businessmen friendly to his party.
The creation of three new super-quangos is a chance to look hard again at appointments. The public has a right to know how these people are chosen and, more important, what are the targets and contract terms given to them.
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