Why arts chief wants three times as much from taxpayers

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The Independent Online
GERRY ROBINSON surveys his first year as chairman of the Arts Council and says: "It's been purgatory really, because everything you do upsets somebody. There's a lot of resistance to change and it's at a very high level in this organisation and it really frustrates me."

Times, however, are about to change. As he explained in an exclusive interview, the businessman brought in by government to sort out not just the Arts Council but the whole arts funding system, has just made drastic changes to the council. He has also gone native.

The man who is close to New Labour and has given donations to the party, now believes arts funding in this country should be trebled. He has detailed plans and while he would not be drawn on whether he has discussed them with the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, sources at the Arts Council and the Treasury say discussions are well advanced.

Mr Robinson is also strengthening the council as the place for arts organisations and the public to go for help and information about the arts. This ranges from a switchboard operator who now says: "Arts Council of England. How can I help you" to the appointment of Kim Evans, head of arts and music at the BBC, as a senior council executive.

It is an impressive turnaround by a man who was criticised for reducing the council's staffing from 320 to 200, called a "philistine" by many in the arts and once labelled "an ignorant, upstart caterer" by John Cleese.

"Coming from business," says Mr Robinson, who is also chairman of Granada plc, "there's always the risk of `what does he know? He is a philistine'. That imagery doesn't help. It was absolutely vital to get someone in who could make it more crisp and more effective."

The Arts Council, the funding body itself, he found to be full of incompetence and apathy. "You need terrific management skills in the arts, particularly the performing arts. Just think about what it takes to get a play up on the stage. A lot of the mismanagement in some ways has been in the funding system itself. How are you going to get people to be enthusiastic and turned on?

"The most excited voice I heard in the building when I came here was the automated voice in the lift. I've now got good people. I headhunted Kim Evans. Our mistakes in the past have been mistakes of calibre. When people came to see us a year ago, when I was briefed by the Arts Council on what to expect it was bloody nearly always wrong.

"That told me we hadn't been close to people on the ground. So we've made very drastic changes here at the Arts Council, reduced the number of people involved, changed the council dramatically in terms of style and the people on it. We've brought in people like Royal Ballet dancer Deborah Bull and artist Antony Gormley. We've got the highest group of high-profile artists on the council that we have ever had."

But the biggest change - if he succeeds in persuading government - is his plan to triple the pounds 200m a year grant that the council gives to arts companies.

Already there is pounds 400m if lottery funding - which Mr Robinson is using to pay off deficits and fund productions instead of just paying for new buildings as used to be the case - is included. But it is the core pounds 200m that he aims to treble. "It's very small sums of money we are talking about: four or five fighter planes. Tripling the funding of the arts from pounds 200m to pounds 600m is only a blip on the graph."

Few would have expected him to say that a year ago. And with his contacts in, and influence with, the Government, the arts world knows that his words imply the real possibility of a transformation.

He explains: "I am saying to government: first, let's examine what other countries do because we do need more money. Second, the question of taxation. How do you persuade donors to be more generous?

"A very tiny number makes a huge difference here. So fiddling around with gift aid [which allows the receiving institution to claim tax relief] is important but doesn't generate huge sums.

"We should look at the American system, that when capital assets are transferred to charities [many arts organisations have charitable status] the donor is allowed income tax deductions. So if you're holding shares of pounds 1m and transfer them you can deduct that pounds 1m from tax. It's known as free capital gains and it could produce pounds 130m a year for arts institutions.

"I think Labour hugely underestimated the feeling in the country about the arts. But now there's an understanding that the arts can make a difference to society. And to be fair to them they have already given a substantial chunk of money. I will tell them that as well as making the taxation changes you have to go on to directly increase subsidy."

Mr Robinson also revealed his frustration with the lack of any strategy for deciding allocations to arts institutions. That too is about to change.

"We've never sat down with say the National Theatre or the Royal Opera House and said `what do you really need, and what can you get from the private sector, to mount a good programme for three years'. We've now set aside a sum of money to pick out 25 to 30 organisations and to give them what they need and say this is an exemplar."

Mr Robinson gave comfort to the nation's orchestras following a speech by the Secretary of State for Culture, Chris Smith, implying that some might be closed down. He said: "I don't think we should cull an orchestra. Often orchestras are the only artistic beacon of local pride."