The Week in Arts: It's no secret... the Arts Council should be axed

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The Independent Online

What an intriguing story this week that documents from the Arts Council obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that it refused to back Adrian Noble's scheme for rebuilding the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. It seems that this lack of support may have led to Noble's resignation as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2002.

What an intriguing story this week that documents from the Arts Council obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that it refused to back Adrian Noble's scheme for rebuilding the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. It seems that this lack of support may have led to Noble's resignation as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2002.

Did you spot a breathtaking phrase there? Let me repeat it: Arts Council minutes obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

I had assumed that the Freedom of Information Act could be used to obtain minutes of Cabinet committees or the paperwork of multinational corporations. I have to admit it hadn't occurred to me that it would be needed to find out what the Arts Council felt about a massively important and expensive scheme involving a national company, subsidised like the Arts Council itself, by the taxpayer.

But, come to think of it, I shouldn't have been surprised. The Arts Council is as secretive and unaccountable as any big corporation or the most furtive of government committees. Its meetings are closed to the public. It has long since given up even the token gesture of a monthly press conference. It offers no explanation why it axes companies, increases their grants, or, in this case, backs or refuses to back the proposed demolition of a world-famous theatre. And, we have to wait years to find out what its view was ... and then only by wresting the information from it via new legislation.

It prompted Terry Hands (Noble's predecessor) to say this week: "We could not understand why the Arts Council appeared to be publicly supporting these plans. I wonder whether if they had made their position clearer at the time, whether some of the horrors of the period might have been avoided."

So even Terry Hands, one of the key figures in the RSC of the past 30 years, and at the time of this fiasco a member of the company's advisory panel, was utterly confused by the Arts Council's stance and its obfuscation.

This bizarre turn of events really has to be the catalyst for change at the Arts Council. Rumours abound that the Department of Culture might be abolished after the election. But surely it the Arts Council - the body that funds arts organisations - that a new government should put under the microscope, not the ministry. It is the Arts Council, not the ministry, which has the power and the cash to decide whether arts organisations live or die. Yet ministers are accountable to Parliament; and the Arts council, with the real power, seems to be accountable to no one.

If anything is to be abolished after the election, then let it be the Arts Council rather than the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. An organisation which can't even come clean about where it stands on the future of the Royal Shakespeare Company's theatre isn't the right organisation to be funding the arts.

If the Arts Council is to continue, then all its decisions and decision-making should be open and above board.

The Freedom of Information Act was intended for bigger things. Whether it's better to present Shakespeare in a large auditorium or a more intimate space is an interesting debate for theatregoers. But it ain't a state secret.

Some mistake, surely...

Congratulations to the West End producer Thelma Holt who stepped in where four other producers wouldn't to gamble on bringing a revival of Terence Rattigan's Man and Boy into London. I hear that Ms Holt has recouped her investment on the production starring David Suchet after barely two months.

But I wonder if there's more than Rattigan behind the packed houses. When I was in the auditorium the other night I overheard one twentysomething lamenting that he thought it was vastly different from the book. A couple of others sitting nearby chimed in to say that they too were struggling to see the connection between play and novel.

It emerged in their interval chat that they thought they were coming to see a stage adaptation of the Tony Parsons' novel. And Parsons and Rattigan are most certainly not related

I informed Ms Holt of this confusion, and she replied sotto voce: "I'd noticed we were getting a lot of young people. I just assumed it was because Rattigan was in vogue again."

¿ One of the quirks of arts administration at present is the number of Australians running sizeable British arts venues. The Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff is run by an Australian. So is the South Bank Centre in London. His wife, also an Australian, is the general manager of Sadler's Wells. The interim head of the ICA is also an Australian.

What's behind the Aussie invasion? Presumably it's not the weather. It might be the money. I'd like to think it is the stimulating arts scene over here, which puts the Sydney Opera House in the shade. Perhaps it is the sheer eclecticism of all those venues where music, dance, lyric theatre and plays exist side by side. Or a desire to learn the conventions and traditions of arts administration in Britain.

But I was disabused when I decided to ask one of the Australian arts supremos why she thought that Australians were doing so well in arts administration. "Someone's got to show you guys how to do it properly," she replied. It was an answer that struck me as suitably Australian.

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