Hands off the arts

Is the "arm's length" approach to public funding of culture coming to an end?
December 16, 2006

In 1996, newly appointed as chairman of the Scottish Arts Council (SAC), I was required to approve an £8,000 grant to an unknown author called JK Rowling. A single mother, living in Edinburgh, she had written a book with the unpromising title Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Since it was a sizeable grant, I asked about its rationale. "It's simply a brilliant book for children," said the head of the literature department. "I loved it—I think they will too." It was a reasonable explanation. We moved on to other things.

I was able recently to ask Rowling what difference the money had made in those early days. It had, she said, transformed her life. By allowing her to pay for childcare during the whole of a year, it had allowed her to complete the second Harry Potter volume at a time when she had no prospects of success for the first. The point, however, was that the grant had been made unconditionally, free of the box-ticking criteria that surround so much of arts funding today. There had been no mention of social inclusion, thematic relevance, peer evaluation or comparative benchmarking. It was simply… a brilliant book for children.

The officer who made the decision is, I am pleased to say, still with the SAC. His opposite number in England, however, has gone. Gary McKeone, the greatly admired director of literature at the Arts Council England (ACE) for the past ten years, has been relieved of his job, one of five department heads and two executive directors whose posts are being "redefined." He is to be replaced by a "director, literature strategy." Staff at ACE's headquarters are to be reduced by a third, with new departments such as planning and investment, resources, advocacy and communications taking care of overall strategy, while grant applications are decided at regional level—"a blueprint," as the announcement puts it, "for a more focused, streamlined and effective organisation."

Managerial restructuring? Or something more insidious? There are those who claim to see, in reforms like these, the steady weakening of the "arm's length from government" principle that has dominated cultural thinking ever since John Maynard Keynes created the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1946. "Follow the language," suggests a former member of ACE. "Look at the way it has got steadily closer to the kind of vocabulary that government likes. The questions being asked of us now are about the use to which art is put rather than the quality of the art itself. The risk here is that a once independent council is simply becoming a state agency by default." His suspicions seem to be borne out by a recent comment from the arts minister David Lammy, who complained that "the record sums of public investment we have made in the arts have not led to a higher profile for the arts in the public's mind." The arts, in other words, should be pulling their weight like every other area of social policy.

There are worrying trends elsewhere in Britain. The Welsh assembly is taking a direct role in arts funding, bypassing the Arts Council of Wales, and has set up a government-appointed review panel to determine cultural policy. Its terms include familiar jargon like democratic accountability, transparency, improving access, and active management. Lip-service is paid to artistic freedom, but members of the panel will be required to have a "detailed understanding of government and the public sector" in addition to a knowledge of the arts.

In Scotland, a similar review has resulted in the Scottish executive taking over direct funding of the "national companies"—Scottish Opera, Scottish Ballet and the two national orchestras. The newly created National Theatre of Scotland answers directly to government, not to the SAC. The companies are delighted. They claim that by putting their case directly to government, they are assured of more generous funding. But they may come to regret it. The belief that ministers will be content to dole out public money for the arts without any discernible political payback is naive. Sooner or later they will start enquiring about social impact, regional spread or educational benefit. They will wonder about the value of funding an unknown composer who plays to half-empty halls.

Any thought that similar moves are contemplated in England is rejected by Christopher Frayling, ACE's chairman. "I will go to the stake for the arm's length principle," he told me. He insists the new "strategic" appointments are the result of a restructuring programme going back eight years, and that they will strengthen artistic independence. "I wouldn't be chairman if I did not think that the new departments will be stronger than they were before," he said. English ministers may have other ideas.