A Week in the Arts: Yes we have no arts policy

Click to follow
One of the most significant events in the arts this week went completely unpublicised, unreported and unheard. Actually, that's not quite fair. A room full of people did hear this talk on the future of arts policy in England; but they heard it in Scotland, where it will not apply, so they don't fully count.

The talk was given by Graham Devlin, his inaugural lecture as honorary professor of the Scottish Centre for Cultural Policy and Management at Queen Margaret College, Edinburgh. Mr Devlin is deputy general secretary of the Arts Council of England, and for nearly a year has been acting secretary general - in other words, running the show. So his words repay some study. I was, of course, happy to hear him using some of his inaugural lecture to endorse The Independent's campaign for tax breaks for people who give to the arts. Let's hope that Edinburgh University alumnus Gordon Brown pays attention to honorary professors in the city.

I also enjoyed the diversion of his reminiscences about the Arts Council's more controversial funding decisions. Who would want to forget the legendary two men walking round East Anglia with poles on their heads (funded by the Experimental Projects Committee)? Who would want to remember Throbbing Gristle's exhibition of Miss Cosie Fanny Tutti's soiled underwear at the ICA?

But Mr Devlin's talk was of particular interest for his thoughts on the future of the Arts Council. They were, he stressed, personal thoughts, he was there in a personal capacity and nothing he said should be taken as official policy. And he would say that, wouldn't he? Me, I disclaim all such disclaimers. I'm content to believe that the man who has administered the Arts Council for the past year, and actually continues to do so for another month, is projecting more than a few personal whims. What we got in that Edinburgh lecture theatre was a snapshot of how the arts will be run in the future.

The new Council, says Mr Devlin, should be slimmed down and should give more thought to funding individuals as well as companies and buildings. And about time too. The premise that we cannot fund individuals has led to some ludicrous anomalies over the years. We managed to lose a talent like the director Peter Brook to France, presumably because he was not a building.

Devlin goes on to say that the new slimmed-down Council should be responsible for the overall distribution of funding for the arts (although not necessarily doing much itself in the way of individual grant-giving) and for undertaking research and devising arts policy that encompasses the wider cultural industries and the commercial sector; it should also stand up as a powerful advocate for the arts.

Well, one could argue that it should have been doing most of this already. But let's not be picky. This future role as a policy body, with the regions distributing funds locally, makes some sense, and might save the Council from abolition by an increasingly sceptical government. The successes of Adventures in Motion Pictures and others in the West End show that the subsidised and commercial sectors are closely linked. And the public never differentiates between them anyway. A national cultural strategy should embrace both.

Most pleasing was a sentence in Devlin's speech which said that the Council should put subsidy into seat-pricing structures which "make the arts affordable for the majority of people, and not just a well-heeled elite". At last, a glimmer of recognition that price determines access, and that the best thing a subsidy body can do is to bring down ticket prices. The effect could not be better illustrated than by the sell-out success of Raymond Gubbay's cut-price but stunning Madam Butterfly now playing at the Royal Albert Hall (and reviewed above). Bringing ticket prices down, making transport to arts events safer and more efficient: these are things rarely discussed by funding bodies. But they are crucial to bringing in more punters.