The list of Arts Council failures is long. Its nave 'national arts strategy' was received with derision and promptly shelved. An arbitrary decision to stop funding 10 regional theatres had to be rescinded. The latest miscalculation has been the fiasco of funding for London's leading
The Arts Council set out to concentrate its subsidy on two instead of four orchestras. The outcome likely to be confirmed next week - after a High Court judge was asked to adjudicate - has proved to be little more than a marginal change to the funding of previous years. In the meantime three London orchestras have been blighted, and the Arts Council has appeared incapable of doing its job of allocating funding.
Tim Renton, the former Arts minister, has echoed influential opinion in suggesting that the Arts Council should simply be abolished as an unnecessary bureaucratic layer between the Department for National Heritage and regional arts boards. The department, he suggests, would directly fund major arts institutions. Supporters of this idea can hold up France, which boasts a well-funded, prestigious Ministry of Culture, as a model
for such a change. The Louvre extension and other presidentially-inspired grand projects testify to the energy that central political control can give the arts.
But talk of abolishing the Arts Council is dangerous. The price of this change would be the politicisation of arts funding. As in France, artistic directors could expect the sack when the Government changed after a general election. And, unlike France, Britain lacks the public commitment to the arts that would prevent politicians from dictating conformism.
Controversial art would be likely to receive little help from a minister required to defend decisions before Tory backbenchers. Innovative and challenging work such as Tony Kushner's Aids drama Angels in America would surely enjoy less official support at the National Theatre from a government that has legislated against the promotion of homosexual values and is busy getting 'back to basics'. The award-winning DV8 dance company's latest provocative show, Men Seeking Men, would certainly not be subsidised.
Nor would eliminating the Arts Council solve the problem of an ever-burgeoning bureaucracy. The 10 regional arts boards show every sign of becoming just as buried in paperwork. It would be better to amalgamate some of them so that the regional structure returned to its more streamlined pattern of the Fifties.
But no progress can be made in rethinking the Arts Council's role until competent people are in charge. As long as the present council remains in place, these self-inflicted problems will give the Government a welcome means of hiding its own mistakes. More seriously, mismanagement at the Arts Council offers the perfect excuse for its abolition and yet further accretion of power and patronage by central government.
After Lord Palumbo retires, a figure who commands respect should be appointed. Working with a fresh and accountable membership, the council must take up its role of independent, authoritative and robust leadership in the arts.
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