Arts world rounds on government over 'cuts'

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The Government is facing a backlash from some of the most important figures in British culture, who accuse it of betraying promises to support the arts.

The Government is facing a backlash from some of the most important figures in British culture, who accuse it of betraying promises to support the arts.

In a move that will alarm ministers just weeks before an expected general election, arts leaders have spoken over their concerns about the potentially devastating impact of a spending freeze.

Ruth Mackenzie, the Government's former special adviser to the Department for Culture, and the heads of some of Britain's most prestigious cultural institutions, including the National Theatre and the Tate, fear a return to the stop-go funding of the Conservatives that wreaked devastation in galleries, concert halls and theatres during the 1980s and 1990s.

A small elite who were invited to an arts summit at Downing Street in December, and who believed Tony Blair would not allow the axe to fall, are particularly angry.

Ms Mackenzie chaired the meeting on 7 December, which was attended by Nicholas Hytner, the director of the National Theatre, Sir Nicholas Serota, of the Tate, Vikki Heywood, the executive director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Philip Pullman, the writer, Melvyn Bragg, the Labour peer, and Anish Kapoor, the artist.

The funding issue was at the top of the agenda, after those who attended discovered a disastrous Arts Council funding settlement was pending.

Mr Blair was told that an additional £50m over three years would safeguard the progress in the arts under Labour.

But the announcement a week later that the Arts Council grant would be frozen at £411m a year for the next three years made clear that the pleas had fallen on deaf ears.

Mr Pullman said. "I do not think he was there to listen, he was only there to be seen to be listening. I feel cutting back on public arts funding is a disgrace and a scandal."

While it is not the Prime Minister who decides on funding allocations, arts insiders say the Department for Culture Media and Sport is increasingly holding money back for pet projects. They believe intervention from the top may have influenced the funding decision.

Ms Mackenzie, who is now the artistic director of the Chichester Festival Theatre, said the funding settlement had awoken "these terrible fears of returning to the Tory days of stop-go funding when you can't plan", but she was pinning hopes on the budget.

"For everyone in the arts world, it feels like a betrayal. I can't believe that the Government is going to throw away seven years of investment for the sake of a further £20 or £30m to the Arts Council."

Mr Hytner said he was "depressed" by the Arts Council settlement. "I don't think we deserved another big increase. However, what disturbs me is ... I've heard nothing that convinces me that we ... in the performing arts world as a whole, can be confident that we're not going to return to a kind of hand-to-mouth existence. "

Sir Nicholas said: "I'm disappointed that they have failed to recognise that the arts and culture are a really important component of people's lives, and I'm disappointed that I clearly have failed to make that case strongly enough. I see it as my failure as much as theirs."

The concern by such senior figures reflects a growing sense of disillusionment in the arts. That was powerfully articulated by Sir Christopher Frayling, the chairman of the Arts Council, in a speech on Wednesday.

He accused the Government of being increasingly prescriptive in its demands on how cash should be spent, and suggested politicians were embarrassed to be associated with the arts. He said, the Government refused to grant the arts as significant a standing as sport, despite huge public support.

The Arts Council will announce how it will implement the cuts to performing arts organisations next month. And the Museums Libraries and Archives Council faces choosing which regional museums should benefit from a smaller-than-anticipated settlement.