Arts Council works well just as it is: Letter

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The Independent Online
Sir: David Lister ("Better Mrs B than a bunch of luvvies", 15 October) questions the accountability of the arm's-length principle of arts funding and lays the blame for failure to resolve funding crises in the arts at the door of the Arts Council.

There is indeed a case for directly elected representatives taking on responsibility for the distribution of the money that Parliament votes for the support of the arts.

However, in the real world I suspect that if this were done, it would not be very long before some new arm's-length-style body would have to be invented.

The reason for this is twofold. In the first place, the Council includes among its members arts practitioners of the highest quality; in turn they receive expert advice from panels of arts professionals. Second, Council members and advisers give their services free. It would be difficult, and very expensive, for the Civil Service to undertake this work without adding considerably to its own overhead.

Further, it is not true that there is no connection with elected representatives, as local government is an essential component in the structure of the Regional Arts Boards, all of whose 10 chairmen serve as members of the Arts Council. The Secretary of State of the day, who appoints members of the Council for fixed terms, is accountable to Parliament.

As for accusations that members of the Council do, on occasion, have professional interests which benefit under the Lottery, this is indeed a sensitive and difficult issue. Stephen Dorrell, when he was Minister, answered it best when he said that for civil servants to administer the lottery system was the only alternative, and by definition this excluded practitioners. Some trust is necessary, and we have rigorous procedures which ensure that nobody affected by an award or associated closely with others affected can take any part in the discussion or decision-making process.

David Lister seems to blame the Arts Council for what I agree is the increasingly untenable imbalance between current funding under a steadily reducing Treasury grant and the large sums being made available for capital purposes under the Lottery.

On present form we are likely to find ourselves in a position where we have severely to restrict the activities of theatres, orchestras, opera companies and the like, which have only just received many millions for the provision of handsome new facilities from the Lottery. The funding system will look at best incompetent, at worst insane.

In the end we all know that improved facilities, as well as the welcome new directions which allow arts organisations to bid for "software" funding through the Lottery, will make a difference to revenues, but this will necessarily not be felt for two or three years. We have to persuade the Government to help us to get from here to there.

And it is a pity that those like David Lister, who take a welcome and continuing interest in the arts, should be diverted by some constitutional debate from drawing attention to the acute position in which we find ourselves.


Chairman, The Arts Council of England

London SW1