Stars vow to fight for future of arts

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The Independent Online
SOME OF the nation's most glittering names in the arts accused the Government yesterday of "dumbing down" Britain's culture.

To the embarrassment of Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, sponsors of the new "Shadow Arts Council" include Oscar winner Dame Judi Dench, and the minister's former deputy, Labour MP Mark Fisher. Mr Fisher was arts minister last summer.

The criticisms of the Government - the most damning by the arts establishment for years - were made at the official launch of the Shadow Arts Council, a body of arts practitioners chaired by the theatre director Sir Peter Hall, and pledged to expose the true state of the country's arts.

The aims of the new body, published at the launch, include a clause saying: "The arts should not be confused with popular entertainment."

Explaining this, Sir Peter said the Labour Government in its espousal of "Cool Britannia" concentrated on film, pop music and video, rather than theatre or opera.

"They obviously decided the arts is a vote-losing issue," he said. "What they don't understand is that if you don't teach music properly in schools there will never be another Beatles."

The Millennium Dome did not even have a theatre, he said, adding: "I don't want my children to be fed on a diet of dumbed-down international television. We still live in a country where `intellectual' is a pejorative term. An insult. And the word artist is suspect."

The administrator of the new body is Erika Frei, an established PR administrator who is also Sir Peter Hall's mother-in-law.

Sir Peter's vice-chairmen are John Tusa, head of the Barbican Centre, and Norman Rosenthal, exhibitions secretary of the Royal Academy. The members of the new body number over 100, and include the playwrights Sir Alan Ayckbourn, Sir Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter, the conductors Sir Simon Rattle and Bernard Haitink, the composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle and a former head of the National Theatre, Sir Richard Eyre.

Sir Peter said the list was growing by the day. Dame Judi Dench had rung him from America after the Oscars, asking to be part of the new group. And the poet Tony Harrison had also just joined.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport said yesterday that it had already earmarked pounds 125m more for the arts over the next three years.

The Arts Council also came under attack for carrying out government policy without making any criticism of it. The Shadow Arts Council's manifesto said: "The Arts Council no longer fights for the arts. It is an instrument of government."

Sir Peter said the solution to the arts world's problems was the doubling of public subsidy. The Shadow Arts Council was going to be an irritant to government, he said.

He added that he hoped no one would use the phrase "whingeing luvvies". But within hours of the launch, Gerry Robinson, chairman of the Arts Council, said in an acerbic response: "The important thing is that it [the new body] should be a positive affair rather than just a bit of organised whingeing."

Alan Howarth, the Arts minister, said: "Sir Peter should resist any temptation to go on to auto-whinge.To think you can snap your fingers and double the arts subsidy is not serious."

The new council claimed that 55 per cent of regional theatres are on standstill grants, and children are "not getting access to arts education".