Leading Article: A non-strategy for the arts

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The Independent Online
IF YOU bring together everyone who wants money from the Government and ask them to produce a strategy, you are likely to end up with a confused clamour of special pleading. So it has turned out with the report by the Arts Council that will land on the desk of Peter Brooke, the new Secretary of State for National Heritage, today. It took two years to produce and cost pounds 250,000. It purports to be a 'strategy for the arts, crafts and media in Great Britain'. In fact it is little more than a list of all the worthy cultural causes on which the Government ought to spend money.

Every interest group has had its say and been recognised in a mish-mash of worthy sentiments and hazy generalisations. We need new works and old, old buildings and new, black and 'culturally diverse' companies, professionals and amateurs, new technologies, education in the arts, films, videos, crafts, access for the disabled, and more money for everyone. True, true. There is very little to quarrel with except the claim that this amounts to a strategy. Under the section called 'policies and priorities' the report admits defeat in the first paragraph. The headings, it says, 'are in order of priority, but in practice they are interdependent and of broadly equal status'. In other words, no lobby can complain about being placed second to any other.

The main question posed by the report is whether the Arts Council was the proper body to undertake the task of formulating a new strategy for the arts in Britain. It is too close to the interested parties to be objective, and ill equipped for the sort of rigorous analysis that a new strategy demands. What it should have been asked to produce was a list of wishes, a set of principles that it would like to see guiding arts funding, and a few cogent arguments to back up its case for more generosity. Many of these things can be found in its report but they are well concealed and wrongly labelled. The anger that the report has generated in cultural circles in the course of its preparation is justified.

Mr Brooke has the chance to start strongly in his new job by treating the document as a register of claims and setting up a small advisory group of experts with no special axes to grind to suggest priorities. It would have to represent the consumer as well as the producer, and start from the assumption that economic conditions will not permit significant increases in funding for some time. But this should not prevent it taking a long-term view on questions such as the level of funding needed if Britain wants to maintain its international position in the arts, how much the arts contribute to Britain's balance of payments, how much weight to give to making opera tickets more affordable and how to balance the demands of the regions against those of the capital.

Probably it should propose a much clearer distinction between capital expenditure on buildings and support for performers. It would certainly put support for amateur dramatics, endorsed by the Arts Council, near the bottom of any list. And it should not be shy about proposing changes in the Arts Council itself. After that it would be Mr Brooke's task to produce a strategy for moving from the present underfunded confusion towards a clearer definition of the place of the arts in the life of the nation and the level of resources needed to maintain it.

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