Council goes in search of a future role

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The Independent Online
Do we need the Arts Council? Lord Gowrie's resignation as chairman may presage its demise. David Lister, Arts News Editor, finds both government and leading figures in the arts sceptical about its usefulness.

Bookmakers do not tend to offer odds on matters as esoteric as who will succeed Lord Gowrie as chairman of the Arts Council. If they did, then among the favourites would be another former Tory arts minister David Mellor, the broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, the Labour peer and film producer Lord Puttnam and Baroness Smith, the widow of the former Labour leader John Smith.

These are the names being touted in arts circles. Headhunters are being employed for the first time to find a suitable candidate. And the job will be advertised for the first time to encourage open competition.

Whether the organisation the headhunted candidate will head has a future is less certain. The Ministry of Culture's own internal spending review will look at whether an Arts Council is needed, a spokesman confirmed last night.

Much about the Arts Council sits uneasily with a Labour government committed to bringing art to the people and removing elitism and privilege. For a start, the post of chairman is unpaid and virtually full time, which means only wealthy people can afford to serve. The last two occupants, Lord Gowrie and Lord Palumbo, show the force of that argument.

It is understood that the Government is urgently considering changing the chairmanship to a paid executive chairmanship to rectify this, a change which would mean amending a Royal Charter. Government sources said yesterday that this change would be made if a candidate came forward who would otherwise be excluded from taking up the post because of financial circumstances.

There has also been unease in government, openly expressed by Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, at the way the Arts Council failed to monitor efficiently the management problems at the Royal Opera House, allowed its own secretary general to be hired as the new chief executive without the post being advertised, and allowed the ROH to make unsatisfactory arrangements for temporary homes while Covent Garden was closed - arrangements Lord Gowrie described as "a shambles" even though he was supposed to be monitoring them.

This is all part of what government and other observers see as a lack of accountability in the council, a failing that will be emphasised today when the council announces the findings of a special inquiry government charged it to set up into the Royal Opera House, but will publish only a summary, not the full report, leading to speculation that it is attempting to hide criticism of itself. A spokeswoman would only say yesterday: "It is not usual for us to publish the full reports in appraisals of our clients."

It has also been criticised for handing out large sums of money to venues run by people serving on its own advisory panels.

Add to this government unease about vast tranches of lottery money being distributed by the Council to institutions such as the Royal Opera House with a narrow audience base, and one can see that, in resigning "for entirely personal reasons", Lord Gowrie may have been prescient in seeing a period of conflict not just with government but with the council's own clients. He is also said to have been at odds with members of his own council, furious about the Royal Opera House debacle.

The Arts Council was set up at the end of the Second World War and distributes pounds 186m of government grant to institutions ranging from the Royal Shakespeare Company down to local arts centres. It epitomises the "arm's-length principle" by which a quango runs the nation's arts, and government is not allowed to interfere directly, lest it start pronouncing on what is presented - a fear unlikely to have much basis in reality.

Raymond Gubbay, the classical music and opera promoter, said yesterday: "You just need a civil servant and a secretary on a wet Wednesday afternoon ticking off a list of arts organisations. What else does the Arts Council do? It never takes any far-reaching decisions. It's all based on precedent. The companies that have money get more money. But it's drastic far-reaching decisions that are needed in the arts."

The amount of money it distributed more than doubled when the National Lottery was set up and it became the agency for giving pounds 250m a year to good causes in the arts.

But after years of financial crisis in the arts, failures by the council to sort out problems such as the surplus of symphony orchestras in London, or the funding of regional theatre, respected arts figures are wondering if its existence is justified. Elected government ministers run every other area of British life. They even fund directly the big national museums such as the British Museum, National Gallery and Tate Gallery.

By what logic are the rest of the arts better served by an unelected quango? Far from increasing democratic accountability, it regularly means that when ministers are quizzed in the Commons about problems in the arts, they evade the question by saying "This is a matter for the Arts Council."

Some believe there is a need for a planning body in the arts, but not for a cash dispensing body. Colin Tweedy, director of the Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts, said: "The days of the Arts Council being the core funder of the arts in England are numbered."

Viviana Durante (left) in rehearsal for the Royal Ballet production of Romeo and Juliet at the Labatt Hammersmith Apollo theatre, one of the company's temporary homes during the refurbishment of the Royal Opera House. The setting up of these substitute venues was one of the recent controversies to dog the Arts Council under the leadership of Lord Gowrie (top left), whose likely successors when he steps down in April include David Mellor (top right), Melvyn Bragg (above left) and Baroness Smith (above right) Main Photograph: Laurie Lewis

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