What about a little democracy in the arts?

`The man in charge of the country's arts doesn't actually fund a single theatre or gallery'
  • @davidlister1
IT HAS been a bad week for Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary. The nation's leading art galleries complaining they are underfunded and in crisis. The Theatres Trust says he has failed to champion heavyweight London theatre. Sir Cameron Mackintosh reveals that Smith and the Government spurned his offer to help with the plight of regional theatres.

Yet it has also been an easy week for Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary. For none of this is his direct responsibility. The man in charge of the country's arts doesn't actually fund a single theatre or regional art gallery. "This is a matter for the Arts Council," he will - and does - say when the complaints come in. And as things stand, he is right.

Next week the Arts Council will announce how it is distributing over pounds 200m to its clients. The decisions will have been made in private. No elected representative will have been involved.

Britain runs its arts through the "arms length principle", a system of running the arts much cherished by those who run the arts. The Government is not allowed any direct say in how much money goes to the performing or visual arts, nor any say in which theatres, opera houses and concert halls should stay open or remain closed.

The thinking is that if the Government had direct power it might take money away from the National Theatre if it put on a play that parodied the Prime Minister or it could decide the artist Tracey Emin isn't the best cultural ambassadress for Britain and literally strip her bed. The fact is, of course, that any such interference, any such threat to democracy, would be exposed and ridiculed. As it happens the system we do have is a threat to democracy.

I fail to see why the arts should be run differently from any other area of British life. We do not say it is very dangerous for the Government to run education as they might withdraw textbooks which criticise the Labour Party. The arts world is alone in demanding special treatment. Yet, as well as being undemocratic, the system is inefficient.

The Arts Council distributes pounds 218m, which nearly doubles to pounds 418m when you include lottery money, which it also administers. Yet it is an unelected quango.

If you want to know how it decides which organisations to fund and how much to give them, you can't. The Council's meetings are held in private. The public and the press are barred.

One thing we have found out, though. The people who serve on and advise the Arts Council manage to give a tremendous amount of cash to the people who serve on and advise the Arts Council. Even people on the Council itself are given money for their own projects. When Lord Rogers was vice chairman of the Council, his architectural practice was given pounds 900,000 for a feasibility study to redevelop the South Bank Centre.

Just a few months ago the Council gave a further pounds 900,000 for an Anish Kapoor sculpture. Kapoor is a member of the Arts Council. Ah, the Council's spokeswoman tells me. No conflict here. They leave the room when their own projects are being debated. They don't actually take part in the vote.

All then is well. When Arts Councillors pace up and down the corridor, which must seldom be unoccupied, their colleagues act utterly objectively inside the room, forgetting that these people are their close friends and colleagues. In any other walk of life this practise would be denounced as little short of a scandal. And ironically enough it would be denounced by the very people conniving in it - the arts world.

Espousing the arms length principle back in 1965, Jennie Lee, Britain's first arts minister, said: "No minister must ever intervene to say, as between this theatre and this theatre, I want the money allocated." This policy has acquired the state of holy writ. But Jennie Lee could never have foreseen the gigantic sums now involved in the arts, nor the Arts Council continuing failure to make key decisions.

One statistic illustrates the inefficiency perfectly. The Council has over the years commissioned no fewer than 19 key reports on orchestral provision in Britain. Eleven looked solely at London and half of those recommended reducing the number of symphony orchestras in London. Only one of the reports recommended keeping all four. What happens? We still have four, with three perennially short of money, and all four short of audiences.

Chris Smith keeps quiet. It is what the system demands. When a hospital closes the Health Secretary has to justify it to Parliament and the country. When a theatre closes, Mr Smith can pass the buck. It is not his fault. It is the system he has inherited and a system that he probably finds frustrating. He spends a month or so negotiating with the Treasury over how much the arts should have then for the rest of the year has no say in how it is spent.

However, the radical appointments tend to go native. They find they enjoy the glamour and first nights. The once persistent rumour that businessman Gerry Robinson, the Arts Council chairman, had been brought in by New Labour to abolish the Council is never repeated now. He's clearly loving the job. And to be fair, he is making the Council more efficient.

But the system itself is an affront to democracy. And neither Gerry Robinson nor Chris Smith seem to be be doing anything about that. Arts Council spending of pounds 400m should be accountable, and its decisions open to scrutiny. At the moment the minister has no real teeth. And lack of accountability has been turned into an art form.