Books: Queen of quangos

Anthony Everitt, who ran Britain's most quarrelsome funding body, assesses a bitchy chronicle of culture and the state
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Artist Unknown: an alternative history of the Arts Council

by Richard Witts

Little, Brown, pounds 22.50

Richard Witts sees the history of the Arts Council largely in terms of the personalities of those who have run it. Most of them he dislikes, although he has a few heroes. By and large, though, he finds only knaves or fools. Because he has attitude, he cannot resist giving them a good kicking. Rather, I should say "us" for - as one of the dramatis personae - I emerge from these pages black and blue with bruises.

Like Homeric heroes, everyone is given a tag, although seldom complimentary. No holds are barred. Lady Cunard (putting in a surprise appearance) was an "odious bigot". Sir David Webster, who ran the Royal Opera House after the War, was "a bone-idle prevaricator". Sir Steuart Wilson, the Arts Council's first music director and assistant general administrator at the ROH, was "the nastiest man to work at either building". John Maynard Keynes was a misogynist, "as so many homosexuals are".

Gays, in fact, are ostensibly outed at every opportunity. E J Dent was "considered a `poofter' and bitch of the first order"; Lilian Baylis was "like a lesbian [John] Christie" (who, in passing, is cast as the "Baron von Trapp of Sussex"); Sir John Drummond is "the homosexual dilettante". (I haven't the faintest idea about his sexuality, but "dilettante" hardly seems the word for the tireless former director of the Edinburgh Festival and the BBC Proms.) Anthony Field, the distinguished one-time Arts Council finance director, is a "canny, perm-haired theatre queen". And so it goes on.

It is very hard to know what weight to place on these character assessments or assassinations, and indeed on many other controversial claims the author makes. This is a book of more than 500 pages and it reads as if it is longer. Richard Witts has evidently put in many midnight hours poring over the minutes of forgotten committee meetings and he has talked to many participants in the Arts Council's chequered saga. He is a dab hand at structure charts and comparative tables. One can only admire his assiduity but, although he writes in a bright and breezy style, the outcome is a desert of bureaucratic intrigue dotted with oases of insult. It's rather like an expose in Private Eye as told by the Ancient Mariner.

There is a lengthy bibliography at the end but, extraordinarily, no footnotes: a bizarre omission in what presents itself as a scholarly account. This means that when something particularly telling or outrageous is asserted, the reader often has no means of judging its truth (except by re-doing all the research). This is worrying, for where I have direct knowledge of an event, the account given is sometimes off-the-point or mistaken.

There is a drizzle of factual errors and a few mysterious absences. For example, the "Midlands Art Group" refers, in fact, to the Midland Group of Artists. More seriously, the wonderful Joanna Drew, the Arts Council's Director of Art and later Director of the Hayward Gallery, is awarded pages of well-deserved text, but her admirable predecessor Robin Campbell does not get a single mention.

It is as if Richard Witts finds himself surrounded by so many trees that he just cannot be asked to count every one. As for the wood, that is completely beyond his range. Part of the problem seems to be that he is powered by a fierce energy, but largely of a negative kind. At one point he refers to "that bitter mixture of mental frustration and a kick-in-the-stomach pang familiar to those who receive an Arts Council rejection". This powerful phrase reads as if it has a personal force behind it and perhaps it throws some light on the author's passionate impatience with his subject.

This is all a great pity, for two reasons. First is that the explanation which Artist Unknown gives of the Arts Council's pre-history is fascinating and deserves more readers than it will probably attract. It offers a blow- by-blow account of the birth of the Arts Council's predecessor, the wartime Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts. The key figure was Maynard Keynes, who chaired both bodies and steered CEMA away from its broad approach to the arts and support for amateur participation, on the grounds that it was too concerned with "the welfare side of things". His interest was essentially in professional excellence, as his draft objectives for the Council's royal charter show (for some reason this revealing document is not quoted by Witts).

Keynes's opinion was decisive. For many years the Arts Council concentrated on the high or (as another surprising absentee from the index, Raymond Williams, has it) the old arts. The fact that it did so with considerable success should not blind us to the limited nature of its achievement.

Second, a true interpretation of the events of the last 15 or 20 years would be of real assistance to those currently responsible for this corner of public governance, as they make up their minds about the future of arts funding. In Witts's eyes, this latest chapter of the Arts Council's history has been one of supine decline, of unrelenting foolishness. Well, maybe. However, even if this tale of decadence and falling IQs is true, it is not the main issue.

Perhaps the single most important characteristic of the period has been the growing interest local authorities have shown in the arts. During the 1980s many of them became convinced of the economic importance of culture and its role in civic development. This has gone hand in hand with the rise of the Regional Arts Associations, now Regional Arts Boards. They came into being spontaneously after the Arts Council (with mind-boggling short-sightedness) closed down its regional offices in the mid-1950s. They were, and are, distinctly interested in the welfare side of things and the 1980s and 1990s have seen a long and bitter war of attrition between the regions and the centre that has had as much to do with ideology as with power.

Pressure from below has been more than matched by pressure from above. A succession of Conservative arts ministers battered the Arts Council with one review after another and imposed on it an extraordinarily bureaucratic system of accountability (for which it has got most of the blame from the arts organisations that it subsidises).

Their motives varied, but one thing became clear. National politicians have followed in the footsteps of their local counterparts by paying increased attention to the arts. This has culminated in the creation of a powerful Department of Culture, Media and Sport which agrees with local authorities and the regions that public policy should embrace amateur participation, mass popular culture and the cultural industries, as well as the professional performing and visual arts. A further major complication has been the arrival of the National Lottery: a completely new income flow with its own rules and prohibitions, which the Council has had great difficulty in harmonising with its traditional Treasury grant.

In the light of these changes and challenges, it is clear that the Arts Council cannot stay as it is. The canny old quango has recognised that itself and later this month will be announcing what it thinks its future role should be. There is a good chance that it will re-invent itself as an updated CEMA. Some critics say it should be abolished, others that it should become an advisory talking-shop. This is a decision for Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, who (surprise, surprise) is apparently conducting yet another government review.

Do we hear much of this from Dick Witts? Not really. The triangular infighting between the Council, the government and the regions, which set the tone of my decade at the Arts Council, is given little emphasis or coherent coverage. When this "alternative history" gets round to offering its view of the future, its recommendations are almost frivolous in their implausibility.

The Regional Arts Boards should be abolished, according to Witts, and the Arts Council should re-open its regional offices. This is institutional nostalgia with a vengeance. It is about as likely to happen as Keynes is to return from the grave. As it is, if news of Artist Unknown reaches him, he will certainly be turning in it.

Between 1985 and 1994, Anthony Everitt was Deputy Secretary-General and then Secretary-General of the Arts Council of Great Britain.