Changes to the Arts Council urged: Leading figures say crisis would not be solved by abolition. Dalya Alberge reports

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ARTS organisations were unanimous yesterday in calling for the Arts Council to be altered but not abolished, despite criticism from two former arts ministers. However deep-rooted their criticisms of it - and however bitter their talk of 'bungling and ineptitude' - they still prefer to be funded by an Arts Council with a hands-off approach, rather than any government whose interference in artistic programmes could lead to a sinister conflict of interests.

Arts figures were speaking out in the light of what many see as the council's farcical handling of regional theatre companies and the London orchestras. Many have increasingly criticised the council's apparent lack of direction, and the increased influence of the Department for National Heritage.

The situation came to a head last week when Timothy Renton, a former arts minister, reiterated calls made regularly over the past decade for abolition of the Arts Council. Writing in the London Evening Standard, he argued that the council had become largely superfluous, 'out of touch' and 'an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy'. He added: 'Axe the Arts Council, and you will save pounds 8m a year on administration.'

A spokeswoman for the Arts Council said: 'It would be hard to find an arts organisation . . . who would actually prefer to be directly funded by the Department of National Heritage. From time to time, the Arts Council comes under fire from the organisations it subsidises, but they have a far greater fear of direct funding - of potential political interference and of assessment by career civil servants.'

She added that the arm's-length principle was one of the reasons for the founding of the council after the war - as a reaction to what Nazi Germany had done to its arts organisations, newspapers and books.

Luke Rittner, former secretary- general of the Arts Council, said: 'There is a crisis of confidence in the current occupants of the council. But talk of abolition is very dangerous indeed. We should be careful of not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The current state is very largely self-inflicted - a series of unbelievable misjudgements.'

He added that although some have looked to the example of Europe, where money for the arts comes from central government, 'there is more money there, so issues are not so nail-bitingly difficult. There is also more political involvement . . . We have to decide whether we want that.'

Michael Pennington, former director of the English Shakespeare Company, said: 'The ESC suffered particularly badly at the hands of the Arts Council, with a history of broken promises from the touring board . . . However, just because the Arts Council is not performing well at the moment, does not mean it's not important. The arm's length principle is vital . . . With government control, there is the fear of a minister indulging his own taste. There ought to be a body saying what's good for the arts.'

The attacks have not all been one way. One source within the Arts Council complained: 'The Government can cut our grant, and we have to pick up the pieces. It is the Arts Council that gets unpopular. We shield the Government over criticism of its funding of the arts; we shield the Government over the artistic material that is seen. If something is attacked for being sexually explicit, the arts minister can get up in the House and say: 'It's got nothing to do with me'.'