For all its faults, the Arts Council does not deserve such bad reviews

Share
Related Topics

These are turbulent times in the world of subsidised arts. An assortment of theatrical grandees this week passed a vote of no confidence in the central funding body for the arts in Britain. And next week is the deadline for appeals to be lodged from almost 200 arts organisations, many of them well-respected, that had their funding cut at the end of last year. So what exactly is going on?

At the centre of the furore, inevitably, is the Arts Council. Should its job be to distribute taxpayers' funds to arts organisations on a first-come, first-served basis? That would be transparently unfair, favouring existing bodies and shutting out the new. Should it channel money to those who reach or perform to the most people? That would discriminate against smaller organisations, or those operating in unpromising circumstances. Should it favour those who promise the most beneficial social effects? That is what has happened in recent years and it has led to a demoralising culture of box-ticking and bureaucratic meddling.

No, the Arts Council is right to adopt an elitist approach and emphasise "excellence" as its guiding principle when making funding decisions. Sir Brian McMaster's report, commissioned by the Department for Culture and published this week, puts the case for using this criterion well. The report also contains some interesting suggestions on how cultural organisations might improve their performance, such as by putting more artists on governing boards. The call for publicly-funded arts organisations to put on regular free performances should also be heeded.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Some fear discrimination against provincial cultural organisations in favour of the avant-garde and metropolitan. That concern deserves to be taken seriously. But there is no reason why a regional theatre, for instance, should not be as dynamic as one in London, even if its chosen repertoire is less ambitious. The goal of excellence is not to reject the traditional or the unfashionable, but to combat complacency. Put simply, it is not the job of the Arts Council to subsidise lazy or substandard output.

However, there are some justified concerns over the Arts Council. It is over-bureaucratic in its approach, and acts in the high-handed and arrogant manner of too many public bodies. It was insensitive, for example to make the funding announcement shortly before Christmas and give organisations such a very short time in which to appeal. More transparency over decision-making is also required. It is difficult to discern the rationale behind cutting funding for the impressive National Student Drama Festival, for instance. Similarly, it seems strange to remove a grant from the Northcott Theatre in Exeter just after it has completed a multimillion-pound upgrade, partly funded by the Arts Council itself.

Yet it is important to recognise that, for all its faults, if the Arts Council did not exist it would be necessary to invent it. There is no other viable way to distribute taxpayers' money to the arts and it has to make tough and subjective calls. Does anyone seriously want ministers to decide which theatres, dance troupes and publishers are worthy of funding or not?

There will inevitably be complaints and accusations of flawed judgement when it comes to the allocation of resources. This is as true in the arts as in any other publicly-funded sector. The Arts Council must be prepared to exercise its judgement confidently and to do its utmost to encourage artistic vibrancy and eliminate stagnation. But if it is to adopt an elitist approach, it must act in a wiser, more transparent and humane manner.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Read Next
It's not only the British who haven't been behaving well abroad; pictured here are German fans celebrating their team's latest victory  

Holiday snaps that bite back: What happens in Shagaluf no longer stays in Shagaluf

Ellen E Jones
Simon Laird (left) and Sister Simon Laird, featured in the BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets  

Estates of the nation: Let's hear it for the man in the street

Simmy Richman
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?