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‘If there’s no Arts Council, who will we talk to?’

That seemed to be the strength of the establishment objection to abolition, as expressed by Richard Mantle of Opera North in our Front Row debate last night. Click here to listen (starts at 07:40). Follow further debate here.

The objection strikes me as specious. Over 68 years of British public funding, arts organisations developed a need to talk to power. Some, especially in the regions, want to remind the distant authorities in London of the valuable work they are doing. Others have come to regard the ACE as a resource bank, an occasionally sympathetic ear, a free cup of tea.

But that’s no reason to keep the ACE.

It’s time the arts grew up and stopped talking to power. No other industry, other than arms, has such engagement with central authority. Enough. Scrap the ACE, invest the money saved in grassroots and start-ups, and the arts will forget they ever needed a dialogue with bureaucracy.


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  1. Mark Pemberton says:

    You say “invest the money”. But who manages the investment? You end up back where you started, which is that you need an arms-length body to decide who gets the money, to manage the process, and to provide accountability for the use of public money.

    • ACE has not been arm’s length for a decade and more. It’s run by an ex-DCMS civil servant who never said boo to a minister. The expert panels need to be restored and empowered. They would advise on managing the funds and resign if there was interference.

  2. Mark Pemberton says:

    Oh, and not much in the way of “a free cup of tea” any more. Nowadays you just get offered a glass of water!

  3. Jo Sanger says:

    How tempting it is to label an organisation like the Arts Council as a mere bureaucracy and shout “abolish it!” with an adoring glance at all the lovely money that would putatively be released to the *really* creative people. We’ve seen the same claims made about the NHS, the police, the armed forces, the civil service proper, council services, and on and on and on and on.

    But what actually happens when you eliminate those whose specialism it is to administer funding? The first answer is that grants are cut or diverted to other projects. Does anyone really believe that giving councils the money would result in an increase to arts organisations? Please! Councils will simply cut the remainder of their direct grant/council tax-funded contributions. Small- and medium-size groups, already the biggest losers from arts cuts, will lose even more of their funding. The second answer is that there will be fraud. Just look at the awful record of mismanagement in outsourced local and national government. We are, for example, already seeing a sharp upswing of fraud cases in the bureaucrat-lite, private-sector-pig-trough that is the “reformed” NHS.

    Administering grant provision, particularly to small arts groups, is a time-consuming and difficult task. If you try to do it on the cheap you’ll get it wrong and the money will be wasted, thereby throwing away important sources of growth for our damaged economy. Advisory boards have to be managed and their work checked. Organisations which receive money must be evaluated fairly and consistently. None of this can be done for free. The Arts Council’s “bureaucrats” are actually skilled hard-working people who understand the areas in which they work, are reasonably local, and typically get outstanding results from the public money they disburse. At a cost which is below 5% of overall budget, ACE is excellent value and should be celebrated not dismissed.

    Instead of wasting time on navel-gazing organisational issues, why not argue and argue and argue for the arts? Just 0.5% of government spending goes to the arts in Britain; how we can increase that figure is surely the most important question to address.

    • The point is that really in the case of ACE,
      a) there seems to be tremendous waste in administering the funds (look at the recent stories NL has posted about, for example, the leaving do for the outgoing chief exec, or the “gardening leave” arrangements for those made redundant and see if you can resist thinking of snouts and troughs) and
      b) – even more importantly – how can a not-very-arms-length quango possibly decide how best to distribute public funds to artists? They cannot decide on artistic merit because that is subjective, so they have to use objective, supposedly measurable factors such as “levels of public involvement”, using tools commonly found in commercial market research that try to look at the secondary benefits of the art produced. You have a go at applying for ACE funds and tell me if you think they are more interested in your artistic vision than in ticking their “objective” boxes.

      0.5% of annual government spending would be a very decent sum in itself (£3,500,000,000pa, or if you prefer, an entire London Olympics every 2.5 years!), however I think that figure is wrong. The ACE on their website claim to administer £2.4bn over 4 years 2011-2015 (including National Lottery money), which is about 0.08% of annual government spending, or if you prefer, one London Olympics every 15 years.

      I think Norman is right to call for expert panels, maybe elected rather than selected. Look at this page and see if you think it’s a good structure for funding good art first and foremost:

      Oh and the spreadsheets showing expenses claimed by the trustees is quite interesting. Some of them hardly claim anything (or even nothing) to get to their 3+ meetings per year. Others, well, others claim more.
      Taxi for Liz Forgan!

      • Can’t open the file, Tim. How much did she spend on taxis?

        • From April 2011-March 2012:
          Mileage: £46
          Travel: £1500
          Foreign Travel: £1822
          Taxi: £2881 (the next highest on taxis was Peter Philips, West Midlands Chair on £96)
          Subsistence & Catering: £543
          Accommodation: £207
          Tickets: £753
          Tickets – 2nd: £710 (no idea what that is, she’s the only one in that column)
          Entertainment: £595
          VAT: £294
          Other (Away Day): £115 (she’s the only one on the away day!)
          Total: £9,452

          The spreadsheet for the previous year is broken, it contains references to a local file on their system, so you can’t see anything other than 2011-2012 expenses.

          For comparison, the following didn’t claim anything at all:
          Keith Khan
          Alice Rawsthorn
          Alistair Spalding CBE
          Ekow Eshun
          Sir Nicholas Kenyon
          Sir Andrew Motion

          The second highest spender after Dame Forgan is Sheila Healy, South West Chair, on £3452, of which £2704 was mileage, but I suppose it’s a long way from Cornwall to London after all!

  4. Does anyone know how France and Germany do it?

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