Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Just who is to decide excellence in arts funding?

The arrangements are condescending and unfair; promising not distinction but exclusion
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The Independent Online

Britain is on the verge of a "new Renaissance", so proclaims James Purnell, Secretary of State for the Arts, Media and Sports, and Sir Brian McMaster, whose review of arts funding has been praised as uncommonly bold by many insiders .

Do you hear distant rhapsodies calling forth the next age of beauty and truth? I can't either. Perhaps it is the smoke getting into my eyes as the Arts Council throws into a huge bonfire theatres and centres, companies and artists now seen as detritus in a nation rediscovering its old greatness.

McMaster is the ex-director of the Edinburgh Festival, an arts entrepreneur who makes things happen. I wouldn't presume to question his extraordinary record. His report is audacious and in some respects dazzling. He wants vitality and originality to be rewarded, publicly funded arts to take risks and be unafraid of conventions and expectations. Only philistines and censors would cry foul.

However, he is a Knight of the Realm, comfortable at the National Gallery and opera houses and unlikely, methinks, to frequent the grubby but perfect Bush Theatre in London where I have seen works to lift the soul or trouble it for days, or Watermans in Hounslow, a vibrant centre used by many of us who happen not to live in places like Islington where the great and the good congregate.

Wherever he resides, and for all his detours into alternative expression, McMaster is one of them. He recommends the super-funding of ten flagship institutions while slashing money for modest, creative hubs. The Tate Modern is to get millions more, the Bush loses half of its budget and Watermans gets nothing. And so the Brahmins win and the outcasts can go hang.

Funds will be allocated on the basis of "excellence", not on the damned stupid targets and forms loathed by practitioners. Who would not cheer at that? But what is excellence? Who decides? And there's the rub. Critics in this country are white and middle class, Oxbridge. Arts bodies have their token "diversity gurus" in place, who make only minimal impact on big decisions. The outsiders admitted soon fit in to prevailing tastes.

It is also disingenuous for Purnell and McMaster to claim that art is to be valued intrinsically for itself. Tate Modern is favoured because it is drawing in hoards. If the place only attracted a select few, there would be no big bucks for Sir Nicholas Serota. That is how it should be. Public money cannot be doled out only on the basis of artistic yearnings and personal potential. And the new funding system does still have a messianic belief that art can deliver uplift and "change lives". So there is purpose, only different from what we have had.

During the past ten years, while many institutions – including the BBC – veered right and have driven out "political correctness" to fit into Blairite Britain, the arts bodies remained open and inviting; experimental and self-critical; aware that the story tellers of the nation lagged behind the irreversible changes that had taken place since the end of the war.

There was dissonance between who we were and who we thought we were. Museums, theatre companies, publishers – including the most venerable – responded to the challenge slowly but steadily so that today none, from the RSC to the Tate, is as monocultural as they once were. They were able to draw from feeder theatre companies, galleries and small publishers where constituents on the edge made work to unsettle and surprise, laying claim to the land in cultural flux. The Arts Council took risks and provided money to rebels and renegades, exactly the risk takers McMaster wants. Now they are to be culled.

The Tempest by Tara Arts is on at the Arts Theatre in central London. Although flawed, it is a stunningly spiritual production starting with the Koranic 'God is Great' as the sea boils. I declare an interest here. Tara hosts my one-woman touring show. But I have loved their work for more than 25 years. The company impertinently plays with the classics, speaks to the multifarious country, not only Asians hooked on Bollywood, so it loses substantial funds with directions to get more humble and do stuff with schools, provide "community" entertainment. Less than 10 per cent of Arts Council funding goes to "minority" arts that are now expected to be what the funders call "sector-specific".

Purnell says the new arrangements recognise that the best arts and culture are for everybody regardless of class, education and ethnicity. They do not. They are condescending and unfair, promoting not excellence but exclusion. And yes, just like the Renaissance which was elitist and for the few.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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