Grant cuts herald Arts Council's tough new line: David Lister finds an arts world stunned by plans which will close 10 theatres and end funding for two London orchestras

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WHEN THE Arts Council retreated to Woodstock in May for a weekend retreat to carry out an 'artistic review' of the companies it funds, the head of one national company described it as 'almost as long as the film, and even more boring'. He will be eating his words today.

The climax revealed yesterday is a definite end to funding for two London symphony orchestras, and a soon- to-be-announced list of 10 theatres that will also lose all their public subsidy. In the event, Woodstock in Oxfordshire provided a more dramatic denouement than did Woodstock in New York State.

This week, the council stepped back at the last minute from revealing the names of the 10 doomed theatres. It is understood that the advisory drama panel was so staggered by the famous names on it - including the country's oldest functioning theatre, the Bristol Old Vic - that it refused to approve it without more discussion. It is also said that one regional arts board threatened to sue if there was not more consultation.

But a list there is, to be detailed in the autumn but understood to include celebrated venues in Bristol, Oldham, Plymouth, Coventry, Greenwich, Watford and Hammersmith. The council tried to soften the blow yesterday by saying that the theatres on the list were ones at the 'bottom of the list of priorities', which may or may not turn out to be the same as the ones which have their grants cut.

The immediate reaction is one of stunned bewilderment. Philip Hedley, head of the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, and a former member of the drama panel, said: 'This is the worst news for the arts for years. It's the height of arrogance for bureaucrats to sit in London deciding which town centres should go dark. For many people the theatre is as important as the football club or the Cathedral as a source of civic pride.'

With the orchestras the drama became surreal. The LPO, RPO and Philharmonia have to appear before a committee headed by a Court of Appeal judge and prove their artistic worth. The two that fail will have their grants axed, divided up and added to the winner's. It has been likened to a beauty contest.

So why has the Arts Council suddenly got tough? Much reaction focuses on the pounds 5m cut in the council's government grant planned for next year. For an arts world used to pointing the finger at government miserliness, it is an obvious target. But it is largely a red herring. The council's secretary general, Anthony Everitt, admits that even if the Government were to rescind this cut in the autumn Budget, six out of the ten theatres would still lose their grants, and neither of the two doomed orchestras would be granted a reprieve.

For once this is a cut that cannot be laid at Whitehall's door. The Arts Council has, in one swoop, resolved a tension that has been unresolved since it was set up at the end of the Second World War. Do you spread the money thinly over many companies or pick on the centres of real excellence and fund them better?

For decades the first option prevailed. Now Lord Palumbo, the council's chairman, has opted for the second. It will in future earmark its funding towards 'excellence, innovation, education and cultural diversity'. It then takes a more arguable leap of logic and decides to cut drama and increase funds for contemporary dance and the visual arts.

But it is at least making choices, a fact emphasised in the unprecedently strong words used by Mr Everitt this week. He said: 'There's no point in making the arts accessible if the arts that you make accessible are second rate and poor quality.'

But the new philosophy does have some force. Four orchestras are too many for London. Audiences at the Royal Festival Hall, for example, have fallen by 25 per cent since the late Sixties. And recording opportunities are thin on the ground. By funding two orchestras properly, London could have two world-class orchestras with the pick of the best musicians.

Yehudi Menuhin is among those who are predictably appalled at the idea of two orchestras losing grant, and says we would be losing two of our great civilising influences.

But others take a more sanguine view. Graham Sheffield, director of music at the South Bank Centre, where the LPO is the resident orchestra and the RPO and Philharmonia play regularly, said: 'The immediate knee-jerk reaction is what a tragedy for orchestral life. But if you stand back and think long-term you have to accept the four orchestras would have gone on chasing diminishing funding and diminishing audiences.'

But this does not explain a number of anomalies in the decision. Most glaringly, what is the point of the Arts Council having music officers and a music panel if it has to devolve a decision on the artistic quality of the country's best known symphony orchestras to an Appeal Court Judge? Some, including David Mellor, the former Secretary of State for Heritage and former LPO Trust member, say it is because the LPO has made mistakes both artistically and managerially in the last few months. He advocates a merger between the LPO and the Philharmonia with the RPO going its own way, probably with the emphasis on touring.

A further anomaly is the Council's continuing stress on new work. Yet it is often this new, adventurous programming that gets the smallest audiences.

And artistically, what are the council's criteria for success and failure? Some theatres can point to West End transfers and satisfied local communities. But a West End transfer does not impress the council if it is a transfer of a safe Terence Rattigan or Noel Coward play. But it is unclear whether the council is in tune with the public in prioritising innovation above friendly, welcoming theatres with productions local audiences enjoy.

The Arts Council should not necessarily be condemned for trying to make painful choices. The cake has been spread too thinly and there is a case for funding fewer organisations better. But it is a case that has to be made cogently and the public has to be convinced.