Nice caff, shame about the seven-day week

With arts management now driven by sponsorship and tourism, it's enough to drive any administrator into academe, says David Lister
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As Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, the departing director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, relaxed on her sofa yesterday, it was instructive to glance over her shoulder at the bookcase behind her.

There among the tomes on art history, textiles and conservation was a book on Elton John. A moneyspinning exhibition of the rock singer's ties was one of the early, controversial decisions taken by Esteve-Coll to bring a new and younger public into the most famous museum of decorative arts in the world. To add to the apoplexy of the arts world, she also sanctioned a Saatchi's advertising campaign with the slogan: "An ace caff with quite a nice museum attached."

Yesterday, after six years in which she suffered personal abuse unprecedented in the rarefied museum world, she announced her resignation. Paradoxically, her decision to leave (she is to be vice chancellor of East Anglia University) comes at a point whenshe is secure, highly esteemed and can boast that she has increased attendances, improved the budgets and widened access.

Her resignation follows the less glorious departure last month of the Barbican Centre managing director, Baroness Detta O'Cathain, now on paid leave of absence after the heads of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the London Symphony Orchestra, the Centr e 's two most illustrious residents, told the City of London Corporation, which funds the Barbican, that they had lost confidence in her.

The departure of the two most powerful women in the arts marks the end of a long period during which the arts world squealed as it was ordered to balance its books, make its marketing more professional, mount productions and exhibitions that were profitable and have bosses who put managerial and business skills before artistic purity.

Esteve-Coll and O'Cathain are both strong and powerful women, but their cases should not be seen as synonymous for that reason. They are quite different characters from different backgrounds. Esteve-Coll came from a background of academic research, O'Ca

thain from business and the milk marketing board. But both had a clear agenda to balance the books and increase attendances.

The chairman of the V&A trustees, Baroness Thatcher's former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Armstrong, said yesterday: "A place like this can be forbidding. It's not just a temple of the muses. We have as a matter of policy put on exhibitions like Street Style [the current exhibition on fashion] to bring people in to the museum who wouldn't come in otherwise."

But the Thatcher legacy extends well beyond broadening access. It can be traced back to the mid-Eighties when the then arts minister Richard Luce announced there must be an end to "welfare statism" in the arts. Public subsidy was to come under greater scrutiny. The Arts Council began to insist that artistic directors devote time to raising commercial sponsorship.

With more than £50m a year now coming from private businesses, that policy has been a clear success. Galleries bearing the name Toshiba, Sackler and so on, the RSC logo that has Allied Domecq next to a picture of Shakespeare, and countless other examples, bear witness to a new creed of matching public subsidy with private money.

Many of the results have been beneficial. Arts managers had to learn marketing. Box office staff are better trained and, frankly, less rude; and seemingly obvious things such as national companies advertising all their repertory in their programmes are beginning to happen at long last.

But the concentration on marketing and fund-raising too often took the heads of arts institutions away from running their companies, galleries and museums. The downside for the heads of our national arts institutions became clear yesterday. Mrs Esteve-Coll admitted that one reason for her leaving was that the job was a seven-day-a-week commitment. Her personal life had been crowded out to such an extent she had not even been able to attend a close relative's funeral.

If the Thatcherite legacy of business sponsorship, better marketing and box office management, and an ever continuing squeeze on public funding, remains firmly in place, a further political sea change is taking place.

As Baroness O'Cathain has discovered, being efficient and making a profit are no longer enough. The arts community is fighting back. Detta O'Cathain impressed John Major when she told the House of Lords that public subsidy must be subject to scrutiny andone man's pile of bricks at the Tate was another man's kidney machine. She impressed the City of London when she cut staffing levels, put on more conferences to make money nad questioned the value of cross-disciplinary arts festivals. But t o those involved in the arts, goodwill, delegation and pulling together in a common cause were as vital as good business management. It was an argument that could never have prevailed five years ago; but with the artistic quality of companies such as the RSC and LSOcurrently so high, the City of London has recently begun to understand that they needed to be kept sweet.

That, according to Jennifer Edwards, director of the National Campaign for the Arts, subtly but clearly marked an end to Thatcherism in the arts. "There was a time," she says, "when any arts manager who wouldn't employ consultants to show he was a toughie, wasn't a real manager. Now it's being recognised that there are qualities that are harder to define, harder to judge, qualities that allow someone to bring people together effectively and use all the goodwill that there is in the arts."

Yet it would be foolish to imaginethat the arts as a whole will return to a pre-Eighties reliance on public subsidy and freedom to experiment. The legacy of the past 10 years is that all arts companies are conscious of the need to keep their deficits down or be punished in the annual Arts Council grant allocation. Productions that do not attract audiences are quietly but firmly taken out of the repertoire, as a study of the National Theatre will show. And a production at the National Theatre, the RSC, the Royal Opera House or English National Opera that has not found a business sponsor is seen as a bit of an embarrassment.

And in place of the clear message of Thatcherism - that the arts must find private money and good business managers - is a much muddier but just as significant messsage from the new National Heritage Secretary, Stephen Dorrell. The arts, he says, must look less to subsidy and more to tourism for their funding. Improve the British tourist industry and visitors will inevitably spend money on the arts.

It is a hopeful, convenient but fatuous philosophy. Tourists may well go to the RSC or National Theatre, which get 90 per cent capacity audiences anyway and still fail to make a profit. Tourists are unlikely to flock to the excellent art gallery in Walsall, or Battersea Arts Centre. Having taken the best of Thatcherism and won the battle against its more obsessive advocates, the arts must now wrestle with Dorrellism.

All this must make campus life in the office of the vice chancellor at East Anglia University look increasinglyattractive.