The fine art of networking

The Arts Council is in danger of being seen as a club for croneys, argues David Lister
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The Independent Online
Cultural patronage is a concept that has never been easily assimilated into British society. Our most effective patrons have been rich individuals and families. From Sir Henry Tate to the Sainsburys, their bricks and mortar benefaction is patently visible.

But, in stark contrast to America, the British arts establishment has, since the birth of the Arts Council at the end of the Second World War, favoured public patronage of the arts. From the Royal Ballet, Royal Opera and other national companies to the smallest nomadic touring outfits, the public purse through the self perpetuating cultural elite on the Arts Council's committees and panels have decided which art and artists shall prosper.

Some of the implications of this have been commented on over the years. As the cultural historian Robert Hewison puts it in his latest book, Culture And Consensus, "Bureaucracies such as the Arts Council ... appear unaccountable to anyone, protected as they are by the pretence that they are at arm's length both from government and from the constituency of artists whose interests they are supposed to serve. This is one of the reasons why the public culture has become strangely bloodless and rootless."

But I have another worry, which is potentially more disturbing than the debate over whether our culture is bloodless and rootless. It is whether it is beginning to smack of croneyism.

The National Lottery, adding a staggering pounds 351m to the Arts Council's normal spending of pounds 186m, means that it now has a financial power that places it among the most powerful cultural patrons in history.

Yet so far, while putting lottery applications through the most rigorous scrutiny, it has not always been subject to the same rigorous spotlight being turned upon its own methods of doling out cultural patronage.

They don't always inspire confidence. The council is currently considering the South Bank Centre's redevelopment, at pounds 127m the largest lottery application of all. If the full scheme goes ahead, as is likely, it will be a massive contract for the architect employed by the South Bank Centre, Sir Richard Rogers. Sir Richard is a brilliant and visionary architect. But he is also vice chairman of the Arts Council, the body that will award the money.

Sir Richard's talents are badly needed in such organisations, and the council is at pains to point out that he has not been and will not be involved in any decision concerning this project. He leaves the room when the matter is debated. But perceptions are important.- not least the need for openness and accountability. It cannot be right for an architect, however distinguished, to remain vice chairman of a body that could be awarding his firm a multi-million pound contract. If this were happening in business or politics, the artistic community would be the first to satirise it. One can almost imagine the late night Edinburgh Festival revues lampooning such an apparent conflict of interest.

Then there is the case of Peter Gummer. Peter, brother of John Selwyn, the Tory Cabinet minister, chaired the Arts Council's lottery advisory panel. This same panel successfully recommended that the council give the Royal Opera House pounds 78m of lottery money. Mr Gummer has now been appointed chairman of the Royal Opera House. Again there is absolutely nothing in the rules of quangos that prohibits such an appointment. But the perception - not least among small and struggling arts companies that have failed to get lottery cash - of the man who recommended a pounds 78m windfall for an institution then going off to chair that institution is not an entirely reassuring one.

But conflict of interest is a phrase that is met with blank looks at the Arts Council. It can see nothing remotely eyebrow-raising that one in seven of the 132 people serving on its own specialist advisory panels is involved in preparing lottery bids for their own organisations, not that these self-same panels have regularly awarded grants to their own members. Like Sir Richard these people leave the room when they are being discussed. The corridors must be seething.

The Arts Council claims it has "a specific ethical code to avoid conflicts of interest". But the possible perception of the arts establishment looking after its own is a danger. If a committee of doctors dispensed lottery money to a hospital and then one of those doctors went off to run that hospital I dare say it would be commented upon.

But last week lottery thinking took an even odder twist. Perhaps those of a tender disposition should read no further.

Professor Andrew Motion, the poet and biographer, told this newspaper he favoured money from the national lottery going to fund the creation of writers' "safe" houses in which professional writers could go for a week or two to work away from "yowling families".

It is a distressing thought, these poets and novelists distracted from their musings by real life spouses nagging, adolescents arguing and toddlers crying. Let us hope that these writers' safe houses are not located too deep in the countryside lest the twittering of birdsong prove as disturbing to the muse as the yowling family.

Those who travel in to offices on crowded, delayed trains and work in stressful redundancy- threatened environments may yearn for the odd day at home with the yowling family and dismiss Professor Motion's plea for lottery money for writers as an irrelevance.

But it is highly relevant. For Professor Motion now chairs the Arts Council's literature panel and his is a highly influential voice. He is a cultural patron now.

Along with many others I campaigned for the arts to be beneficiaries of a National Lottery long before the lottery became a reality in Britian. The arts have already benefited greatly. But the honeymoon could soon be over. Jack Cunningham, Labour's heritage spokesman, has indicated that a Labour government might want to channel lottery money in different directions. He told The Stage newspaper: "By the end of the century the arts will have had pounds 1.5bn. Is it envisaged that it continues receiving the pounds 250m every year it currently gets?"

Our cultural patron will have to prepare to fight its corner. It can do so only if its own procedures can bear public scrutiny.