There has been a good deal of cynicism about the appointment of the “brutal populist” (Quentin Letts, Daily Mail) Peter Bazalgette as chairman of the Arts Council. What could the man responsible for inflicting Big Brother on us have to offer the arts? Worse, what damage might he inflict?
The culture secretary who cut the arts with an almost messianic fervour made the appointment in a final gesture before moving up to another cabinet job; Bazalgette was a member of the DCMS executive committee, and therefore on the inside peering out, as it were; he was knighted only this year for services to television at a time when this government and broadcasting could hardly be mentioned in the same sentence without lawyers getting involved; he succeeds a woman who was popular in and out of the sector, who showed herself to be a formidable champion when arraigned by the culture select committee, and who would have liked to continue; he was chosen, Jeremy Hunt said, partly because of his familiarity with philanthropy, Hunt’s answer to lost subsidy.
Yet those in the arts who have worked with him, to whom he is “Baz”, have nothing but praise for Bazalgette. The Arts Council members may have had no say in this outsider being brought in as their leader, but the ENO board did and happily chose hum as their chair only in April.
Liz Forgan’s problem was that she did not have the governmental ear, so that her pleas on behalf of the Arts Council against the excoriating administrative cut of 50% that has been imposed on it were not heard
Those who know him speak of a great programme-maker, a Renaissance man who cooks and gardens and who lists his recreations as opera and gluttony, an enthusiastic debater and someone who is “thoughtful and energetic”. His knowledge of the digital world got him involved in creating The Space for the Arts Council, which might turn out to be one of ACE’s most important services for the arts.
Dame Liz Forgan’s problem was that she did not have the governmental ear, so that her pleas on behalf of the Arts Council against the excoriating administrative cut of 50% that has been imposed on it – despite also having extra responsibilities such as sponsorship, museums and libraries – were not heard.
Bazalgette is his own man, an independent thinker who will make up his own mind about the stance he will take as ACE’s chair, and he will not have to take a new position with a minister whose policy is already set. He has a brand new secretary of state to whom to take the case of the subsidised art, albeit one who has already shown her commitment to austerity policies by, as minister for the disabled, selling off the factories established by Remploy to give work to the disabled. His job will be to convince Maria Miller of how vital to wealth creation the arts are, and how the dynamic interaction of subsidy, sponsorship and earned income are intrinsic to our continuing cultural success so that any further subsidy cuts would cause irreparable damage.
Whatever else he may be, Sir Peter Bazalgette is regarded as much for his original thinking as for his high level contacts, and if he is an insider, who better to take the arts argument to government from the outside?