A response to "The New Approach to Investment in Culture" from the perspective of the theatre
When in the 1970s I was the director of Riverside Studios, a community arts centre in Hammersmith, my chairman was the late Hugh Willat, Secretary General of the Arts Council in the now seemingly golden age of Arnold Goodman and Jenny Lee. Our funding from the local council obliged us to hold an annual public meeting to account for our activities. The first proved memorable partly because the audience contained within it two powerful interest groups — those who had failed to nab the resources for social services and a group of pre-Thatcherite zealots called the Hammersmith Ratepayers Association led, if I remember correctly, by a woman called Mrs Smelt — but chiefly because of Hugh Willat’s contribution to the proceedings. I was in combative mood and ready to account for myself robustly. But it fell to Hugh to open the debate with an introduction that took up most of the time allotted for the whole meeting. Audible, but only audible enough, Hugh rambled on and on, platitude after platitude, generalisation after generalisation, statistic after statistic, all giving the impression of grave accountability. When he had finished, the meeting was bored into submission. I answered some dull questions. Hugh wound up. And we all went home. My colleagues and I were furious that we had not had the spirited encounter with the enemy we’d been looking forward to until irritation gave way to marvel, as we appreciated Hugh’s coup. He was a believer in a client-led arts policy. A board appointed someone to run an organisation. Limited funds were allocated and, provided budgets were kept to and you did roughly what you were supposed to, that was it until the next time. Under this regime some remarkable things were achieved and in the meeting Hugh stoutly defended his principles, which were that public subsidy and accountability were best left to the artist and his or her public and not to bureaucrats and busybodies.
I was reminded again of Hugh’s speech when I was ploughing through the Culture Secretary’s consultation paper The New Approach to Investment in Culture. It is so amorphous as to make you almost supine. But you suspect, unfortunately, that it does not come from the same tenacious a hard-fought love of the arts as Hugh’s speech. It seems to contain proposals relating principally to abstractions about the bureaucracy. The arts are viewed from on high, but not, alas, from Olympus.
And the paper is a model of inaccessibility, which is curious in view of the importance attached to accessibility throughout its 42 pages. Accessibility, along with accountability, excellence, streamlining, management, regional autonomy and of course education, education, education. All that is missing is faith hope and charity. Words like a "novel", "poem", "play", "sculpture", "painting", and the like are in conspicuously short supply.
The mind set which makes the consultation document so opaque is at the heart of what needs to be changed. The means by which the arts are funded is obfuscated by a kind of bureaucratic bindweed which favours only those practitioners who share this over-articulate and deadly way of thinking. It militates against the intuitive, empirical, practical nature of most artists and favours a particular kind of arts professional who manages to be the enemy of innovation and access at the same time.
And "Access" here is defined by the number of "experiences" that the Minister wishes us to have. Number is not, however, an indicator of quality. Neither do larger audiences necessarily mean a wider social mix. Cheaper seat prices alone will not materially affect what the government calls the socially excluded or those who do not already take part. Neither will dumbing down. The Three Tenors argument – that Nessun dorma leads from the football terrace to the opera house – is unproven. The proposition that what people want is the "popular" is often too narrowly conceived. It is rather like claims that all boys in Brazil want to play football, or that rock’n’roll changed the world. Truisms about popular art at its best being better than high art at its worst lead to a pointless circularity. The real question of access is a political one that requires a more broadly based approach and more joined up government.
And how is excellence going to be defined? Coming from the mouth of New Labour it sounds dismal. There is something churchy about it, a pious diversion from the orthodoxies of philistinism and populism.
And education, education, education? Any proposal that might lead to the reintroduction of the arts into the curriculum must be welcome. Theatre in education could prove vital in satisfying the current demand for more communication skills and, with community theatre, is a good way of widening access. Any large-scale emphasis on education cannot, however, go by on the nod simply because it sounds virtuous. It needs particularly careful examination as to how it is to be achieved and funded (which in the case of education must surely come out of the education budget and not the arts budget). Past experience has taught us that many charlatans have flourished in these fields. The obvious virtue of this work often leaves it unscrutinised and criticism is often seen as, ipso facto, reactionary. The untalented, the prejudiced, and the mouthy, flourish in this culture.
There are various schools of thought about how best to tackle education. There are the purists who think that only a particular group of experts have the necessary skills to undertake the work, which must remain untainted by anything as a suspect as the professional theatre. And there are those who believe in the bolt on principle, which often means that to merit a grant you should invent an accompanying education scheme. This is obviously not a universally productive approach. Would it really be sensible to ask Maggie Smith to lead an after-show workshop? She has already done her bit. It is not normally thought to be a good use of the time of the consultants at St Thomas’s to be teaching first aid. It is a question of obtaining the best for children and adults in education and community projects.
It is good, however, to see the need for investment being at least acknowledged as being important, but it is difficult to believe that the proof that investment in the arts is profitable is in fact accepted. How could it be, when British capital seems so uninterested in investment anyway? At present we have none of the advantages of the funding strategies of either Europe or of America. We struggle between them.
What is obvious about the paper is the need for clearer thinking about some of the ideas embedded in it, but I suspect that the Minister is only hoping to manage his way out of a problem that is to do with a lack of resources and political will. It is about the impotence of all spending Ministers. The extra £125m for all the arts only brings funding back to the situation that it should have been in had funding kept pace with inflation since 1992 and in no way redresses the preceding real cuts.
At present the bureaucracy’s refusal to stand by its own judgements makes for an inexcusable false accountability, as recent fiascos over the dispensing of Lottery funding shows. Earlier this year I was asked to act as a referee to a young company asking for a grant from the Lottery to mount a play at the Welsh national Eisteddfod. It was not so much filling in forms that was provocative, though the tick box culture is annoying enough, nor was it being addressed as Mr Jackson. It was the nature of the questions. When it came to finding reasons for how or Welsh language production of an unknown David Mammet play would benefit the community I was stumped. So I made up an acceptable lie and the group got a proportion of the cash would be needed — £3,000, if I remember.
When it comes to the public sector, government advocates management, management, management. So instead of giving the various bodies their limited cash and letting those who run them get on with the job they are usually expert at, there must be interference, interference, interference, and this means jumping through the hoop after hoop after hoop. In the arts this means expensive searches for sponsorship by those who have not a hope in hell are finding any, marketing without the cash to advertise, matching funding when the unlikelihood of finding any is why you’re asking for subsidy in the first place, three-year plans, and all kinds of socially based constraints which the government itself and the Labour Party do not intend to impose on themselves. Many of these new commercial practices imposed on the arts are now outmoded and industrial management in Britain has nothing to teach the theatre, as the Government’s recent studies on productivity seem to confirm.
A suitable head of the Royal Opera House is going to be hard to find in these circumstances. They will have to be an uneasy mixture of Diagilev, Maynard Keynes, Ninette de Valois, Lillian Bayliss, George Devine, Peter Mandelson and Derek Draper. Have you noticed that the government and its committees resolutely refuse to acknowledge that the recent and current managerial crisis is the inevitable result of government policy and that no artist is responsible for the cock-up? Bernard Haitink is not responsible, that’s for sure.
The only practical concern constant in the paper is the undercurrent of the Minister’s desire to streamline. But is streamlining necessary, or is it centralisation by other means? A neurotic response to diversity? What is it envisaged that streamlining could entail? The substance of the proposals seems to be that the apparently the exemplary and tidy Crafts Council should be welded together with a streamlined Arts Council for England, a central committee charged with overall strategic responsibility and with the distribution of funds; and that more responsibly should be devolved to the regional arts boards and charged with carrying out the central committee’s strategic policy; and that there should be a new watchdog, a sort of Chief Inspector of the Arts.
But it is not clear what makes the Crafts Councils so special. Charity prevents speculation as to how hard dispensing funds to potters can be? Curiosity wonders if the Crafts Council has ever had an experience of a client as recalcitrant as the Royal Opera House.
To ensure that reorganisation on these lines would work it seems it would be necessary first to elaborate a proper understanding of what access, excellence, accountability, education actually entails or they will remain slogans, and then to have an assurance that the central committee will take advice and be seen to have listened to the panel of experts in particular fields. We also need to involve practitioners whenever possible in the make up of these bodies, which must be the most efficient way of looking after the interests of "ordinary people", who are otherwise not going to get a look-in. And all these bodies should demonstrate by their make up a commitment to excellence and be drawn from candidates across the whole country and not be palliatives to mediocrity or local and metropolitan elites. And surely to ensure equity, the national companies should not to fall under the jurisdiction of the Central Committee but take their chance in their own region. Ultimately, there is no avoiding the obvious good sense of making the new strategy client-led.
The relationship between the artist and the public is the only basis on which a fruitful discussion of public subsidy of the Arts can take place. The artist is the client of the public. The artist is not a client of ministers, governments, Arts officers, regional arts boards, managements or bureaucrats. These facilitate the essential relationship. In a democracy the primacy of this relationship must be recognised if anything meaningful is to follow.
Certainly, giving power to individual theatre artists is difficult. In the theatre this is done by means of institutions. At present, too much power is in too few hands. Increasingly, those in power are part of the particular outlook criticised here and elsewhere. Ambition is a useful energy. But is it ambition to improve one’s trade, widen access, or to line the pocket or join a particular metropolitan elite? Writers are in a position to be most easily empowered. Why not give particular writers the cost of producing particular plays and get the institutions to bid for them? The idea itself is enough to strike terror into administrative hearts. It would be smothered before having a chance to reenergize by contemplation.
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Last modified: 2012-03-15