Sir Christopher Frayling: 'In the arts, we always get to the finals'

The Monday Interview: Chairman of the Arts Council of England
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The Independent Online

"Someone needs to put the art back into the Arts Council, treat it as more than just a cashpoint machine with a rather complex pin number." And Sir Christopher Frayling, whose words they are, is just the man.

It's the kind of slick street analogy that infuriates artists, a dumbing down. But brace yourself: you've four years of it to come and Sir Christopher intends to become ubiquitous.

"Artists will never be really nice to the Arts Council, it's axiomatic, like the health service, and I'm not saying they should hug it and love it more," he says. "But it should stand for something, it should be a campaigning organisation. Part of its founding function is to be ambassadorial and it hasn't been."

Now 57 and recovered from cancer surgery last year, Sir Christopher is a populist academic with more enthusiasms than, he admits, is good for him. The critic Gillian Widdicombe described him as "like a teddy bear on speed".

At last we've got 90 minutes for this first interview since he became Arts Council chairman in February, in his cluttered office at the Royal College of Art at the end of the academic day and before he starts on his evening round of presentations, performances and private views. There is a vast window looking on to Kensington Gore and the commuters filing past the Albert Memorial. "That was Jocelyn's idea. He liked to remind himself there were people out there."

Sir Jocelyn Stevens was the last rector of the RCA but one whose seven-year reign in the 1980s and 1990s was marked by Stalinesque purges from which Sir Christopher was the only professor to emerge unscathed. He has been rector, or vice-chancellor, himself for almost eight years.

If Sir Jocelyn had difficulty finding the common touch, some think Sir Christopher has a tad too much. "Yes, 'populist'. It's meant pejoratively, of course, but I take it as a compliment." As the new chairman of Arts Council England, emerging from its latest makeover, he has the chance to put his common touch to the test.

He won't be leaving the RCA, his life since he created the department of cultural history there 25 years ago, but his moonlighting is notorious: author on everything from spaghetti westerns to vampires; TV and radio series on subjects from Byron to Tutenkhamun; and his committees. He's given up 16 of them, including the Royal Mint and chairman of the Design Council, to take on this latest enthusiasm.

Huw Wheldon once called him the Kenneth Clark of popular culture, meaning Lord Clark, the patrician, castle-dwelling, once director of the National Gallery whose 1970s TV series, Civilisation, did for high visual art what Jonny Wilkinson has done for rugby. Others have been less kind: Brian Sewell dismisses him as a "stale and empty man", a "giant committee-man".

It's committee-man that Sir Christopher brings to this unpaid, 12-hours-a-week job. "Well, it's a way of getting things done, and I do," he says. "I thought, wouldn't it be great if someone who runs an arts organisation chaired the Arts Council? You have to go back to the 1950s for the last time that happened." And that, appropriately, was Kenneth Clark.

The Arts Council is no longer stuck in the upper social register of Clark's day, or even William Rees-Mogg's when Sir Christopher began a 13-year stint as an Arts Council member in the 1980s. Now it's transformed, levelled across the land as a single entity rather than the mother hen handing down funding morsels to regional chicks. Cultural education is the Council's 21st-century preoccupation, and Sir Christopher's. Tessa Jowell in her recent embracing of the notion of art for art's sake rather than for the sake of social inclusion, education or healthcare, was trailing in Sir Christopher's long established wake.

One of his formative heroes is Rousseau, the subject of his doctoral thesis at Cambridge, whose 1750s novel Emile "founds art education in a way, it's about training someone in physchogenetic education, tailored to the personal development of the child". Which brings him full circle, he says, because that is the nature of Creative Partnerships, the Arts Council of England's £100m-plus flagship programme to get real artists into schools.

"People are frightened to confront art, it's embarrassing to talk about the arts for their own value. There isn't a vocabulary for it yet," he says.

And that will be his mission, to get art as commonplace in the media as sport, "normalising" it. "Everybody gets excited when Henman gets to the quarter finals. In the arts we always get to the finals and we always win, but we don't celebrate that fact."

Which means publicity, about which there are two philosophies: "One is that a good day is when nothing is written about you" - pretty much the approach of the Arts Council for the past five years - "and the other is to get out there and be much more provocative. I'm for the latter."

Which brings him to his first challenge, the Government's spending review when the arts subsidy for the next three years will be mapped. Sir Christopher's predecessor Gerry Robinson got the grant more than doubled over two reviews, "fantastic job", and he's going to have to keep up the momentum.

The museums, whose turn it is for a decent whack this time, according to the Arts minister Estelle Morris, set out their Manifesto for Museums' bid in March for an extra £115m a year. Sir Christopher reckons the time for him to go public is about now, but he won't be caught criticising his old friend Nicholas Serota who leads the museums' spring offensive.

"I'm very keen now not to set up a kind of boat race between contemporary art and the heritage because I think presenting a broad front of the value of culture encompassing both heritage and the contemporary is the key."

The really interesting work is done, he says, on the borders between art and design, art and craft, between high culture and popular culture. And between art and science, another enthusiasm and the subject of his 14th book, just finished.

Television has a big role to play in changing that, and Britain has more video players per household than any other country. "That dumbing-down debate has been completely wrongly presented" Sir Christopher says. "People see whole areas of activity like film, design, advertising, as ipso facto dumb, and usually behind that is a kind of anti-Americanism, which is deeply British."


Name: Sir Christopher Frayling

Age: 57

Born: 25 December 1946

Family: Married since 1981, lives in Bath and London

Education: Repton school, Derbyshire; Cambridge University

1987-2000: Chairman of the Design Council and of the Royal Mint Advisory Committee. Trustee of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Council member of the Arts Council of England.

1996: Rector of the Royal College of Art, where he has been teaching for 25 years

2001: Knighted for "services to art and design education". December 2003: Chairman of Arts Council England. He is also the author of 13 books on arts and culture, including Spaghetti Westerns (1998), and a broadcaster for BBC television and radio