Christina Patterson: Funding doesn't guarantee excellence in art

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James Purnell, the youthful Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport is an extremely busy man. So busy, in fact, that the photographic evidence of his recent trip to a hospital had to be creatively enhanced. So busy, too, that he yesterday had to pull out of a "political speed-dating" event designed to get young people enthused about "the benefits of democratic engagement".

He did have a lot on his plate. Like every other cabinet minister, he was waiting to hear from the headmaster whether he would get a prize or a wallop. And if his own remit isn't quite as scarily all-encompassing as educating a generation torn between the desire to be Jade or Jordan, or keeping alive a population intent on eating itself to death, it's still quite dauntingly wide-ranging.

Any department whose challenges include the charter renewal of a national broadcasting organisation apparently intent on hara-kiri, delivering an Olympic Games on time and on something like budget (while preserving the goodwill of the local population, both human and – yes, really – newt) and presenting the nation's addiction to gambling as if it were some kind of life-enhancing boost to mental and physical health – like, say, ballroom dancing – has clearly got its work cut out.

On the arts front alone, the challenges would satisfy any administrator's desire for that cliché of funding reports, "richness and diversity". Recent arts "initiatives" (to use another favourite funder's word) from the DCMS have included the announcement of eight "creative programmers" to "bring about a package of innovative regional activity" for the "Cultural Olympiad" which will lead up to what's now being referred to as "London 2012", the commissioning of a new study into the nation's favourite voluntary arts activities (excluding, presumably, the nation's real favourite, a form of artistry generally proceeded by a word which indicates our continuing enthusiasm for Anglo-Saxon pithiness), a "room makeover" for Leicester's dinosaurs and a temporary export bar on a rare silver-mounted long-gun. All this from a minister who might, two hours previously, have been in charge of the nation's play-groups or prisons.

In the end, the news was good. After being braced six months ago for cuts of up to 5 per cent, the DCMS heard yesterday that its funding for the next three years would increase in line with inflation. Of the £1.7bn it will receive in the first year, about £420m will probably go to the Arts Council, which pays an army of bureaucrats, consultants and advisers to dispense it wisely.

The Arts Council spends around £400m annually on regularly funded organisations. The rest goes on one-off grants for artists, arts organisations or "other people who use the arts in their work", a "cultural leadership programme", an "urban cultural programme", "managed funds" for "new initiatives" (of course) and "new partnerships" and an interest-free loan scheme for budding Charles Saatchis.

So how, exactly, is this money spent? Well, some of it goes on rent, electricity, repairs and wages. Arts organisations, like "hard-working families", need roofs over their head, lights to see by and heating when it's cold. They also need staff to run them. This is the stuff that the mandarins can't bear to fund. If they'd wanted boring, they'd have gone into business. Or perhaps education. No, they went into arts funding because they wanted to have some fun. Creativity! Innovation! Hoops! Bread, in fact, and circuses.

And so arts administrators (a species of which I am a survivor) spend their days begging for cash to keep the show on the road. Since no one wants to pay for the art, or its running costs, they dream up projects – projects which will, if the funders have their way, bring together black, white, disabled and able-bodied, rich and poor, thick and smart in a carnival celebration of wisdom, compassion and common humanity. Where there is discord, to quote Gordon Brown's tea companion quoting St Francis of Assisi, they shall bring harmony. I'd like to teach the world to sing. Not forgetting "innovation", of course.

As the co-ordinator of a poetry project funded by a lottery grant of nearly half a million, I sat in writing workshops for paedophiles (which included rather alarming references to "scantily clad children"), lawyers and dustmen. I oversaw poetry "placements" in a fish and chip shop, Battersea Dogs Home and Marks & Spencer. I went to poetry readings in mental hospitals, supermarkets and at London Zoo. And I read reports. Oh yes, I read reports. In each case, according to the reports, participants learnt to think, empathise and express themselves more clearly. Of course they did. That's what they were funded to do and you don't get the money till the boxes have been ticked.

Funnily enough, these miraculous improvements in communication skills, clear thinking and general empathy were not necessarily evident in the professional poets who brought these extraordinary metamorphoses about. Possibly because being a poet is not actually a profession but, as Sean O'Brien said when he won the Forward Poetry Prize for the third time last week, a vocation. And one, at least in my experience, not generally associated with enhanced social skills. But that was not the point. Fun was had, most of all by the funders.

Most arts projects are a mixture of social and missionary work. Echoing Browning's noble aspiration that a man's reach should exceed his grasp, they aim at the masses, but get mostly the middle classes. On your average Sunday afternoon in London, little Sam and Chloe will be spoilt for choice. Should they go to the treasure hunt at the Museum of Childhood, face-painting at the Tate or the miniature garden workshop at the V & A? And the subsidy for their parents' tickets at the National Theatre the night before paid not just for dinner but the babysitter.

A civilised culture should fund the arts. It is, as the DCMS says in its annual report, a question of "quality of life", something it aims to improve by "the pursuit of excellence". "Excellence" in art, however, like love, is something that can't be bought. Throw money at artists and you'll get good, mediocre and sometimes bad art. Throw money at non-artists and there'll be as much chance of them producing great art as of scoring the winning goal at the World Cup.

Some of the greatest poems of the last century were written under Stalin in what was then called the Soviet Union. It was in the Soviet Union, too, that people actually queued to hear poets, not in the back room of a library but in a football stadium. Art for the masses indeed. As Ruth Kelly said earlier this week, be careful what you wish for.