Leading Article: The Arts Council, too, should justify itself

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The Independent Online
THE NEWS that three London orchestras have been ordered by the Arts Council to appear before a Court of Appeal judge to prove they deserve public money conjures up visions of an otherwise empty Royal Festival Hall in which sits the chosen adjudicator, Lord Justice Sir Leonard Hoffmann. On stage successively appear the London Philharmonic, the Royal Philharmonic and the Philharmonia orchestras. Each plays the same test pieces: say, Beethoven's Eroica symphony and a demanding contemporary work by Sir Harrison Birtwistle. The distinguished jurist muses: are the London Phil's strings a touch ragged? Did he rightly hear the RPO's French horns mispitching? And how heavily should the Philharmonia's sluggish tempi weigh in the scales of justice?

In reality, the three orchestras will make verbal and/or written submissions to the musical judge to convince him of their artistic quality, track record and commitment to 'new work and adventurous programming'. The two that fail to impress will have their grants axed and added to the winner's. The London Symphony Orchestra, in residence at the Barbican Centre and considered the market leader, is unaffected.

It has long been thought unrealistic for London to attempt indefinitely to sustain four full-scale symphony orchestras. The Arts Council, which believes the available funding is spread too thin, deserves credit for belatedly grasping the nettle - but obloquy for the method chosen. To pass the verdict to a judge is a pathetic admission that it has lost its own nerve. The council's raison d'etre is precisely to make artistic judgements on how the money handed over by the Government should be apportioned. For advice it looks to its own panel of experts on each of the arts. If between them they cannot make a judgement of this nature, what are they there for?

The council's competence is further called into question by the way it is handling its - seemingly arbitrary - decision to stop funding no fewer than 10 regional theatres. These are thought to include the Bristol Old Vic, the Belgrade, Coventry, and the Lyric in Hammersmith, London. Funding for regional theatres is due to be devolved to regional arts boards next year. Yet the key decision to cut off Arts Council support for theatres that enormously enhance local cultural life is to be taken by metropolitan bureaucrats glutted by the capital's embarras du choix.

The council's past few months have been inglorious. In January, its first 'arts strategy' was greeted with derision. In May, its internal organisation was savaged in a Price Waterhouse report commissioned by the Department of National Heritage. In June, Lord (Brian) Rix resigned from its drama panel, protesting at the council's impotence in the face of a pounds 5m cut in next year's overall arts budget. These and other signs suggest that the rationale of the council's existence and its own morale have been undermined by the setting up of a relatively powerful heritage department 14 months ago. Will the council be up to handling the large sums expected to flow from the National Lottery? Perhaps it should follow the three London orchestras in justifying itself to Sir Leonard Hoffmann.

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