Our national arts centres must find a purpose

'Our arts institutions, subsidised as they may be, are uncomfortable with accountability'

A memorable episode of the comedy series Yes Minister featured a confrontation between the Minister and the head of the National Theatre. The minister told the National's apoplectic artistic director that it would have to leave London and be permanently on tour. That way, said the minister with the calm voice of reason, it would be truly "national".

A memorable episode of the comedy series Yes Minister featured a confrontation between the Minister and the head of the National Theatre. The minister told the National's apoplectic artistic director that it would have to leave London and be permanently on tour. That way, said the minister with the calm voice of reason, it would be truly "national".

This week one would have wished the much-missed series back to take on the British Museum. What contortions Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey could have got into explaining to Parliament and to each other the small problem of Britain's most revered cultural institution paying for the wrong kind of stone for their £97m redevelopment after a Dorset stone mason pulled a fast one on them. "We were mugged," said the museum's managing director, Suzanna Taverne.

It is instructive that the British Museum and English Heritage intended to keep that episode of high (or at least highly expensive) farce a secret - and did so for a year, until they were rumbled by the press. For our great arts institutions, subsidised as they may be to the hilt, are still uncomfortable with accountability and openness.

During the last week, Tom Stoppard and Vanessa Redgrave have written publicly in defence of the National and its artistic director Trevor Nunn who, it emerges, may be appointed for a second term when his contract ends in 2002, by which time Nunn will be 62.

One newspaper's theatre critic has urged the board, of which Sir Tom Stoppard is a member, not to do so. My own view is that Nunn has formed an exciting ensemble company and maintains the National as a theatrical powerhouse. The board should reappoint him.

But such personal opinions can be little more than that - personal opinions - because we have no objective criteria on which to judge him. What, in other words, is the National Theatre for? What is it meant to do? The National says it is there to present "the best of world drama", though that is a fairly meaningless assertion, and even if that were desirable, the National blatantly fails to do it - unless there is a total dearth of drama in China, Africa, Australia and much of the rest of the world.

Is it then there to present the best of the British canon, past and contemporary? Again, a look at the repertoire shows that there is no objective criterion at all. Prolific and once-lauded playwrights such as Terence Rattigan, Somerset Maugham, John Galsworthy and Harley Granville-Barker have barely featured. JB Priestley only made it into the repertoire because Stephen Daldry's production of An Inspector Calls had radical design and direction.

And it is not just the deceased great and good who are ignored. David Hare and Harold Pinter are clearly "in". But the likes of Arnold Wesker and Peter Nicholls have had a number of plays rejected. "It is fair to ask," Wesker has said, "who is deciding what the public wants, and on what grounds." The answer, as Wesker knows, is that it is the heads of our cultural institutions who decide. Students of theatre might be interested to know what the likes of Wesker are doing these days. Could the National's studio theatre not devote a period each year to the new works of well-known playwrights just as art galleries keep us up to date with the new works of celebrated artists?

But such debates never occur because the heads of our cultural institutions will talk ad nauseam about funding, buildings and Tony Blair, but all too seldom about their own roles, and the choices they make. I am among the admirers of Sir Nicholas Serota at the Tate, but while a debate has raged in the visual arts press for the best part of a decade now on why he, the Tate and the Turner Prize have championed conceptualist art over painting, Sir Nicholas's own thoughts are unspoken. But he, like Trevor Nunn, and like the new heads of the Royal Opera House and the Victoria & Albert Museum when they are shortly appointed, wield great influence over the nation's cultural taste. We have a right to know a little more about their personal tastes and how they see the identities of their institutions.

In the case of the National Theatre, critics can and do regularly say it should not put on musicals, should not put on commercial playwrights such as Ayckbourn and Stoppard (though if they are not pillars of Britain's national theatre in the broadest sense, then who are?). But as long as arts institutions fail to be open about their cultural aims and fail to define and redefine their mission statements, such confusions will continue.

Tom Stoppard said this week that even with publicly accountable institutions there are matters on which "reticence pro tem is merely common sense and common courtesy". But such reticence now extends too far. Why, in the subsidised concert halls and theatres, can we not know how much public money is spent on individual productions, how many seats are sold, how many tickets are given away? Would the British Museum have tried to get away with using a cheap, inferior stone if it had seen itself as a custodian of a building of true aesthetic importance?

Perhaps, at at time when television, cheap travel and rising prosperity have extended access to the world's culture for nearly everyone, we no longer even need subsidised "national" cultural insti- tutions. Let us have regular public debates with artistic directors about their artistic policy. The arts thrive in conditions of openness, debate and criticism. A lack of openness and public discussion does not assist cultural life, even if it proves profitable for a canny stone mason.

* d.lister@independent.co.uk

Comments