Business acumen in the arts: What the Arts Council could learn from the Medicis

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The Independent Online
SO THE Arts Council is about to be massacred by its new chairman, Gerry Robinson; "a shark in a Val Doonican pullover", muttered one disgruntled member, proving that whatever their other shortcomings, they mix their metaphors very creatively in the world of arts funding. Mr Robinson is one of those people with a talent for producing invective in others. John Cleese famously sent a fax to him at Granada television after he replaced the head of the channel with an accountant, "F*** off out of ityou ignorant upstart caterer."

Mr Robinson's reply went unrecorded. He could have pointed out upstart entrepreneurs have always been the bedrock of the arts, from the Medicis to the Rothschilds, the Tates and the Saatchis. So far, Mr Robinson's most bloody-thirsty suggestion has been that the 23-strong council should be slimmed down and replaced by a Council of 10. Anyone who has tried to reach agreement on anything with a body of over 10 people on will sympathise with his instinct. It is perfectly good practice, in arts administration as in business, to trim central councils, which tend, like the universe, to expand infinitely.

But the hollering has been predictably robust. The Earl of Clancarty, a powerful member of the Council saw in it "another symptom of the Government stacking arts areas with business and management people who misunderstand how the arts work and are only interested in financial efficiency". This, you may have noticed, is an almost exact inversion of Gerald Kaufman's brusque summary of his hopes for the future administration of the Royal Opera House: namely that a philistine would do as long as he knew how to read a balance sheet.

Both of these viewpoints are caricatures of the truth, knee-jerk responses of one clan to another and as ill-considered and tribally biased as the football fan's assessment of the opposing team's game. That the debate about the arts in Britain is conducted in such a pantomime way reflects badly on our existing institutions. The desire to drive a wedge between commerce and culture is a foolish and unproductive one. Those who seek to imply that businessmen misunderstand the arts, because they are lost in dreams of their profit margins during the last act of Meistersinger, are perfectly matched against the Kaufmans (all right, he was sending himself up a little in that report, but not that much) who want to knee- cap the gentlefolk of Covent Garden and put in a Rachmann to run the ROH.

Without patronage, the arts become a mere subsidized branch the government, reflecting the taste of a not very imaginative elite. The affection of the Blairite beau monde for British art is an example of the way established tastes follow - a few years on - the risky investments of private patrons (like Charles Saatchi, in talents like Damien Hirst). When the rich nobleman Maecenas bought into Horace, Virgil and Propertius, his tastes were doubtless considered controversial. It is rarely public funding alone that provides the impulse for new and daring art. Individuals have hunches and instincts. Regional arts funding bodies play safe.

Anyway, few galleries have resources now for collecting contemporary works. Artists bemoan this because, like most people, they prefer a financially stable existence to a hand-to-mouth one. But as Tony Blair prosaically reminds us: we live in the "real world", and in the real world, however passionately you argue that the arts are as important as hospitals and drains, you will have difficulty making this case against the majority of people who want to secure their publicly-funded hip replacements and cheap, clean water before they fund their local theatre.

Mr Robinson is alive to this worry. He does not believe that the Arts Council in its present form, is able to deliver answers. He is a Lord High Executioner bringing the axe of the downsizer down on the necks of quite a few formerly important people. The question is whether any of them will be missed.

Picking through the evidence so far, it emerges that his instinct is to simplify the Arts Council into a policy body and leave the regions to distribute their own funds. He also seeks to heal the division between the subsidized and commercial sectors and to end the tendency of the Council to invest in buildings rather than people. This - and not only the businessman's traditional fetish of admiring other businessmen - is why he is seeking to put more entrepreneurs on the board. Let us see whether they deliver before we carp further.

There is a version of the public versus business funding argument which concludes that the arts do not need public money at all and that any music, drama or pictures worth their salt will survive in a purely market economy. It isn't necessarily so.As Gunter Grass pointed out in an essay mocking the art collections of Frankfurt banks, commercial sponsors of sculpture share a single aesthetic: "An abstract, but of course unthreatening, one, which produces circular structures in economic-ecological

symbiosis representing the endless circulation of the patron's wealth."

We need to maintain a mixed economy in the arts because that is the best available guarantee of a breadth of investment and infrastructural support. But the tired old sniping of the subsidized sector against the commercial must end. The future liesin partnership between the two.

Two worrying silences remain. The first is the regions. It is impossible to construct a consistent national policy for the arts without addressing the problems of upkeep in the regional theatres and concerts halls. The lottery has been marvellous at

promoting grands projets - far less good at targeting more modest institutions which need help with their heating and cleaning bills. Without the wider tax relief on arts donations (campaigned for by this newspaper), regional arts bodies face a daunting task in raising revenue for day to day upkeep.

The second is that the quid pro quo for most business sponsors is a generous allocation of tickets for their clients - which in turn restricts public access to the performances and causes resentment among the many people who rightly believe that it is the responsibility of a Labour Government to increase that access.

Mr Robinson's fellow upstarts will find that their problem-solving skills, as well as their understanding of balance sheets, much in demand at the new, leaner Arts Council.