Philip Hensher: Don't expect logic from the Arts Council

It's not very helpful to ask people to plan on the basis of funding which can disappear at the drop of a hat
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The Independent Online

The tale of the Northcott Theatre in Exeter is, really, quite hard to beat. It closed recently for a 2.1m refit. Most of the money was found by Exeter University, where I teach, and by the local authority. A helpful 100,000 was supplied, too, by the Arts Council, which normally funds the theatre to the tune of 547,000 a year.

The theatre reopened on 12 December. The occasion was somewhat overshadowed, however, by the receipt of a letter from the Arts Council the previous day, announcing that it would not be recommending the continuation of public funding for the theatre after April 2009.

I spoke to the theatre management, wondering what warning they had been given of this. They feel that they were given hardly any. Concerns about their artistic programming were raised during the theatre's closure. Notice of withdrawal of the grant on these grounds was served before the theatre reopened, which, they feel, gave them no opportunity to address the Arts Council's concerns.

Louise Wylie, of the Arts Council, made rather a point of stressing, when I spoke to her, the immense generosity of the Arts Council in not withdrawing the funding from April 2008. "The Arts Council has every confidence in the theatre's future," Ms Wylie told me. Though, obviously, not so much that it would continue a grant on which the theatre based its plans for that future.

My concern here is not really for the potential loss of one regional theatre but the madness of a policy which can plan far enough ahead to recommend what has just been announced, the cutting of 200-odd arts organisations at a stroke, and not to wonder whether it is worth funding the restoration of a building when you are just about to cut the company's support to nothing. It seems quite reasonable to me that the Northcott Theatre would presume that the Arts Council, having supported a restoration, would quite like to support the activities which go on in it.

Down in London, the Drill Hall, the capital's principal lesbian and gay theatre venue, has been given much less warning. If the recommendations go through, funding will be withdrawn in three months. In a move which looks quite systematic, grants to Queer Up North, an important gay theatre group in Manchester, are being withdrawn at the same time. So much for the Arts Council's commitment to diversity.

The Drill Hall has broken even, its wonderful chief executive Julie Parker told me, for the past five years, thanks to inventive approaches to money-raising through commercial exploitation of their resources (a group like this is, obviously, always going to find it hard to attract philanthropic commercial sponsorship). They have a solid education programme and they do all right, but the Arts Council has told them that it doesn't consider the business "sustainable". The logic of that one completely escapes me Ms Parker and I had quite a chuckle over it since it is the recommended withdrawal of the funding at the minimum legally enforceable notice which would make it so.

No wonder some professionals, such as Jonathan Holloway from the excellent theatre company Red Shift, have decided that they are better off withdrawing from, in his words, a "draining relationship", even at the cost of curtailing some of its activities. Good for him. I'm sure, in fact, that theatres, musicians, writers and so on would greatly benefit from not having some ignorant and hectoring bureaucrat advising him or her what would be good for the community.

Of course, nobody from the Arts Council is ever going to lose their livelihood because somebody in charge changes their mind. Nobody is ever going to tell the Arts Council apparatchiks that they show insufficient sustainability, or lack outreach, or have inadequate creative excellence on a scale of one to five. The last time I wrote about the Arts Council, one of their people had the effrontery to phone up and explain to me, at ear-numbing length, how the article I should have written would have run.

God knows what it's like if the continuance of your creative endeavour depends on their shifting belief in what you should be producing. The dead hand of public funding is stretching, too, into areas where one really wonders what the justification for it could possibly be. One concert promoter, Serious Events, is in receipt of a grant which is recommended to be increased. It would not tell me what the recommended figures are a curious approach to public accountability, I must say. Serious Events now organises the London Jazz Festival, to which two million people come, and promote such world-famous artists as Hugh Masakela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Sonny Rollins and Gilberto Gil.

No doubt it does excellent year-round work in the fields of education and supporting young artists. But I am deeply puzzled why an organisation dealing with such evidently successful artists cannot fund such activities itself, if it seems that important. Seven to eight per cent of Serious's income currently comes from public grants, a figure, it told me, that is is looking to increase "as a percentage". With the increase, whatever that may be, it looks as if it will get its wish.

I rather approve of the Arts Council concentrating on funding major flagship enterprises, such as the Royal Opera House or the RSC. I also suspect that many inventive smaller enterprises absolutely hate having to deal with the man from the Arts Council with his little forms and his fatuous questions about diversity and outreach, and his reduction of "excellence" to points on a scale.

If they could do without it, they would. But if the Arts Council's policies are going to have the bracing effect of placing organisations, like Spartan babies, on the bleak hillside of market support, it is not very helpful to ask people to plan on the basis of funding which can disappear, as many have discovered, at the drop of a hat. I wonder whether the eventual effect is the product of a well-thought-through strategy.

I've spoken to more than one professional who feels that the Arts Council moves the goalposts, fails to inform anyone of its deliberations and often sets impossible tasks in order to justify the withdrawal of funding altogether. The council would really do well to consider why so many arts professionals regard it as an unnecessarily difficult organisation to deal with; whether it is altogether a good sign that some well-regarded figures, like Jonathan Holloway of Red Shift, would prefer to struggle along independently rather than ever have to speak to it ever again.