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'

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.

Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea

film

In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game