Notes towards the brief from hell: A new year brings a new chairman of the Arts Council. How does Lord Gowrie, who takes over in April, measure up to the job? Profile by David Lister

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The Independent Culture
Memo to the speechwriter of the incoming Arts Council chairman: some topics are best avoided. Keep off purchase grants, for example. He froze these in 1985, causing years of complaint from art galleries. Steer clear, too, from any discussion of the export of works of art. He told a conference when he was chairman of Sotheby's that we should export more Turners as we have so many of them.

Perhaps that's why a former arts minister has never been made Arts Council chairman before. They tend to come with baggage. And none come with more flamboyant baggage than the 54-year-old Alexander Patrick Greysteil Hore-Ruthven, Earl of Gowrie, who takes over next April. He grew up in Windsor Castle, owned his own chateau in Ireland, was said to be the best brain in Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet but left because he maintained he couldn't live on a salary of pounds 33,000. He is married to a German countess whose father was executed by Hitler; he taught at Harvard, where he was also an assistant to the poet Robert Lowell. He once said that his three best friends were Margaret Thatcher, Francis Bacon and Andrew Lloyd Webber. And, as chairman of this year's Booker Prize judges, he didn't put the people's choice, Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, on the shortlist because he said it needed editing and the author 'should have brought it to me' for that purpose.

Renaissance man, aesthete, charmer, friend of the arts. All true up to a point. He wrote the catalogue introduction to Bacon's first exhibition in the Soviet Union, was chairman of Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Company, helped secure a Jacques Louis David for the National Gallery when arts minister, even wrote his own slim volume of love poetry, A Postcard From Don Giovanni, in 1972.

But he was also a fierce politician. According to Lord (then Denis) Healey, he was one of Mrs Thatcher's staunchest monetarists and Lord Prior shared the view that he was the best brain in the Government. He started the business sponsorship of the arts scheme, which made much sense in the heady Eighties but looks like bringing untold headaches as that sponsorship begins to dry up. His commitment to the heritage has been maverick. At Sotheby's he defended plans to sell off the Mappa Mundi.

And like Lord Palumbo, whom he replaces, he is a committed Conservative, heading an Arts Council with an increasingly important function of lobbying and campaigning against a Conservative government that has just cut the cash it gives to the performing arts for the first time ever, and intends to keep up the pain over the next three years.

Grey Gowrie was named as the next Arts Council chairman by Peter Brooke, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, on the day before Christmas Eve and a fortnight after another former arts minister, Tim Renton, had called for the council's abolition.

According to informed sources, Lord Gowrie was, crucially, the Prime Minister's choice for chairman. It's probable that the Government had become concerned about the future of the Arts Council. The council has had a dismal year, going on a retreat at a country hotel to formulate a policy of reducing funding, axing up to 12 theatres and cutting the funding of two symphony orchestras. After months of controversy and plummeting morale in the arts, it then did a U-turn, leading in the case of the orchestras to anger and bitterness. Confidence in the institution has seldom been lower and, as well as Mr Renton, another former arts minister, David Mellor, has questioned its future.

Had there been no Arts Council and no arm's length principle, all that bitterness and acrimony would have been aimed at the Government. It is not hard to see that in a time of spending cuts it does the Government no harm to have an Arts Council to do the cutting. And there can be little chance of disbanding under a high-profile, influential figure like Gowrie, who has the ear of any Cabinet Minister he cares to dine with.

LORD GOWRIE's history is almost the stuff of fiction. He underplays it rather, saying once: 'My family circumstances are quickly said. We weren't landed gentry at all. Though I did inherit a beautiful and debt-laden chateau in Dublin, where my great aunt had lived on her maid's wages, pounds 9 a week from the local factory.'

But that is to leave out a chapter or two. Until the Reformation, the Ruthvens owned most of Perthshire. In 1566, Grey Gowrie's ancestor and namesake murdered Mary Queen of Scots' favourite, Rizzio. In 1600, the Ruthvens were themselves murdered and stripped of titles and possessions, winning and losing them again over the next 300 years. Gowrie's father was killed in action in the Second World War, and Grey and his brother Malise were brought up by their grandfather, who was Deputy Constable in the Norman Tower at Windsor Castle. His mother, who had worked in intelligence in the war, was a socialite and the two boys did not see much of her.

Grey inherited his title when he was at Eton, where he developed a passionate interest in modern art and poetry. After marrying Xandra Bingley, whom he had taught before going to Oxford, he went to teach in America. When he returned to London in 1969, his marriage ended and his career changed. He became an art dealer and with his partner sold a Jackson Pollock to the National Gallery in Washington for more than dollars 2m. He took up his seat in the House of Lords, was rapidly advanced by Sir Edward Heath, and then engaged by the then Mrs Thatcher as an adviser on economic strategy. The witty and erudite poet and art dealer cut a conspicuous figure with his black, fuzzy hair and floppy bow ties in the Thatcher fiscal gatherings. According to one observer, it was 'as if Byron had been recruited to one of Mr Gladstone's ministries'.

After remarrying, to the German countess Adelheid von der Schulenburg, Gowrie's political career progressed; he served as a junior minister for Employment and Northern Ireland before taking on the arts portfolio in the mid-Eighties. A year later he also became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, which enabled him to take a seat in the Cabinet. One year later, he quit over the money.

Gowrie was a popular arts minister and there was some dismay when left to become chairman of Sotheby's (where he was thought to be on a salary of pounds 150,000 a year, and had share options worth almost pounds 1m). As arts minister, Gowrie won concessions on settling capital taxes in works of art, a much-welcomed move.

HIS personal interest in art will loom large in his new job. He is a film and jazz buff as well as influential in literary circles, who lists book reviewing as his recreation in Who's Who. But last week he said he approached his new job as an economist, promising to treat the arts as 'an industry, one of the industries in which we shine. People are so used to arts people talking artistically but I think you could take a very cold economic view of this area. I approach arts funding as an economist. Bits of it will make tons of pure profit if you like and bits of it will be seed corn for the future.'

These are not words to fill the arts world with joy. It has long been proved that the arts have large economic benefits for the country. But there will always be areas that need subsidy and which cannot demonstrate any great economic return no matter how much they enhance the quality of life. How will an economist justify the Royal Opera House, or symphony orchestras playing to half-empty houses?

But maybe we should not take Lord Gowrie at his word. Four years ago in an interview with this newspaper he said that his former job of arts minister should not exist, adding: 'I don't think there is a direct correlation between what government spends and what cultural sausage comes out at the other end. The problem with having a minister is that he is in competition with highly political areas like health or social security - it's competing with things the voters really care about. Instead I think every year there should be a type of Church Commissioner thing where the money is just handed out. The arts are a very small item that has become far too political. We should simply say that patronage is a decent thing to do and do it.'

This is hardly the philosophy the arts world wishes to hear from the Arts Council chairman. Which leads to the bigger question. Is it right that a former Conservative minister should head an organisation that will have to argue vigorously with the Government? Lord Palumbo's experience has shown that the effectiveness of wheeler- dealing in the corridors of power is limited. Lord Gowrie comes into the job with considerable goodwill. But he will have to show that he can stand up to government and win back money for the arts, or that goodwill will rapidly evaporate.

(Photograph omitted)