David Lister: The Arts Council has had its day

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The Independent Online

Congratulations to Dame Liz Forgan, right, on being appointed the new chairman of the Arts Council. The former head of BBC Radio and the National Heritage Memorial Fund is well regarded, and I hope she will do the arts the great service that is now in her power. She should examine the Arts Council thoroughly, and then urge the Government to abolish it.

The Arts Council is the unelected quango that distributes government money to arts organisations across the country – from the National Theatre and Royal Opera House at the top right down to the smallest, local companies. Its existence, as it often proclaims, is testimony to the arm's-length system of funding the arts. If the Government funded the arts directly, it might interfere, the argument goes.

I've never quite bought this one. The prospect of Gordon Brown saying to an arts centre, "You hosted a comedian last week who made fun of me, so I'm axing your grant" strikes me as unlikely. And the Government funds museums and art galleries directly, but has not as yet told the Tate what to hang on its walls. What the arm's-length principle leads to in practice is secrecy and unaccountability. If the arts minister is asked in Parliament about a problem in the arts, say the years of crisis and budgetary problems at the English National Opera, he/she can and does say: "That is a matter for the Arts Council."

The Arts Council, meanwhile, holds its meetings and makes its decisions in private. Even the cursory press briefings it used to give have been cancelled. So the arts, which preach accountability and openness to politicians all the time, are run by a body that eschews any notion of accountability or transparency. There's no arm's-length principle in health or education. Our elected representatives are held to account for those portfolios.

One former arts minister said to me: "It is ridiculous. I spend months negotiating with the Treasury to get a good amount of money for the arts. Then I have no say in how it is spent."

None of this might matter if the Arts Council were halfway efficient. But as this year has shown, that is a highly arguable proposition. Earlier in the year the council proposed major cuts to bodies it had funded for years. It managed the affair so badly that it ended up having to commission an inquiry into the way it mishandled it. And luminaries including Sir Ian McKellen and Kevin Spacey passed a motion of no confidence in the Arts Council. To take one example, it proposed axing the Northcott Theatre in Exeter. Many of us pointed out that there was no other theatre for miles. The Arts Council eventually acknowledged that it had not realised this, and decided to save the Northcott. Perhaps the council could invest in a map.

There are also the absurd regulations for those seeking money from the council. They now have to disclose their sexual orientation – bisexual, gay, heterosexual, lesbian, and even "not known".

Well, perhaps Liz Forgan will sort all this out. I've noticed, however, that Arts Council chairmen over the years come in with the noblest ideals of putting the house in order, but tend to go native very quickly. The lure of First Nights is a powerful aphrodisiac. I don't hold out too much hope of Liz Forgan abolishing her post and then the whole organisation. But one day it will have to happen.

Bad date for second coming

Tickets for the Blur comeback concert in Hyde Park on Friday 3 July next year sold out so fast that an extra date has been added. The new date is Thursday 2 July. I think that making an additional date earlier than the original gig is a dicey thing to do. In the mid-1990s, Michael Jackson's series of concerts at Wembley sold so well that an extra date was added, and it was before the sold-out gigs. As most fans had by then got their tickets, the new extra gig was half empty, but as it became the first night, the press was there and reported that Jackson's popularity had waned.

I'm quite sure that nothing similar will happen with Blur. But I do slightly feel for those fans who rushed to get their tickets for what they were informed was the first comeback concert, only to find now that they will be seeing the second night. Some of them might feel a bit miffed.

Missed out on outrageous fortune

A number of readers emailed and blogged about my view last week that the RSC should refund money to people who bought tickets to see Hamlet on the strength of David Tennant, and do not want to go now that a back injury has ruled the star out of the London run.

One blogger, Chris, is one of several who writes "I am a regular theatregoer myself, but will admit that I only booked for Hamlet to see David Tennant. I am saddened by the way the RSC has treated young potential theatre audiences by refusing to refund tickets."

But several of you make the point that the RSC has missed a trick by not filming the Tennant performance while it was on in Stratford-upon-Avon. Kit McD writes: "Tennant's Hamlet on DVD would have RSC's coffers overflowing, what with all the insanity surrounding the unavailability/forging/price gouging of tickets. If they didn't think of that, then they're a load of chuckleheads." I couldn't possibly comment.

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