Arts council chief warns of middle-class elitism

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S arts companies were accused last night by the chairman of the Arts Council, Gerry Robinson, of "plying their trade to the same, white, middle-class audiences".

In his first major speech since becoming Arts Council chairman earlier this year, Mr Robinson, who is also chairman of Granada, said: "There will be no blank cheques. In the new era, no one should kid themselves that the Arts Council will be a soft touch."

Delivering the Arts Council annual lecture in London, Mr Robinson did indeed give a lecture to the arts to pull up their collective socks. He said the council was putting pounds 5m into pilot schemes to find new audiences, and referred in his lecture to Sir Ian McKellen's recent remarks about there being no black faces in the audience at the National Theatre.

Mr Robinson said: "Too often in the past, the arts have taken a patronising attitude to audiences. Too often artists and performers have continued to ply their trade to the same white, middle class audiences. In the back of their minds lurks the vague hope that one day enlightenment might descend semi-miraculously upon the rest, that the masses might one day get wise to their brilliance. Ian McKellen's example in quitting London for Leeds may be a strong sign that this is an attitude that just won't do any longer.

"If we believe that experience of the arts can inspire, can lift the spirit, surely it is nothing less than our duty to go out and spread what can be a life-transforming experience."

He mentioned as an example how one of his new Arts Council members, the young concert pianist Joanna MacGregor, played John Cage pieces to an audience "unused to the genteel disciplines of the concert hall".

The audience clapped between movements. They cheered and they shouted. Mr Robinson asked Miss MacGregor if she was appalled.

"No," she replied. "I wish all audiences were like that."

Mr Robinson divulged that the Arts Council was drawing up plans for the arts to play a meaningful role in taking young and long term unemployed people off benefit as part of the government's New Deal programme.

He said: "Now perhaps some people might suggest that the Arts Council - or the arts - has no part in helping this government, or any government, with its New Deal. I would turn the question round: why should the young and long-term unemployed only look to, say, clerical or construction work as their routes out of benefit? Why not look to work in creative industries?"

Saying that the arts could and should be "a regional economic motor", he added: "Naturally, there may be some fears among artists and arts companies that to take a broader view of the arts within society and the economy is to threaten the spirit of innovation and experiment, perhaps even the genius that is the true creative force behind challenging work.

"Some have seen the appointment of a businessman to the chairmanship of the Arts Council as a threat to the very life-blood of the arts. Really, we should have more confidence in our arts and our artists than that."

Mr Robinson gave a warning to the crisis-ridden Royal Opera House. Saying that large amounts of the pounds 400m funding of the arts will be delegated to regional bodies, he added that the new Arts Council will continue to fund directly the seven "national companies". But, he said, these will be required to meet priorities of excellence, education and access.

"In the new era for the arts, there will be no blank cheques," Mr Robinson said. "The Royal Opera House will not only have to demonstrate its willingness to widen access through cheaper ticket-prices and to develop significantly its educational programmes if we are to carry through its rescue plan and consider awarding any extra grant; it will also have to demonstrate that it is soundly managed."

BRIAN SEWELL

ART CRITIC

"It would be thoroughly commendable if the Arts Council aimed for a white, middle-class audience but it does nothing of the kind. They ply their trade to a minute audience who happen to be their chums ... The Arts Council doesn't need to find new audiences. It needs to satisfy the audience that already exists and has not been satisfied for the last 30 years."

ADRIAN NOBLE, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, RSC

"Gerry Robinson is absolutely right to demand the twin peaks of excellence and access - except that many companies are already committed to vigorously pursuing these aims. The RSC is determined its very best work should be seen by the nation as a whole ... I'm very aware that the purpose of subsidy is to produce work ... for people who wouldn't otherwise see it."

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