Arts Council England – A window on how the money is spent

Ian Herbert
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Arts Council England has announced its annual review, but compared to the equivalent report ten years ago, it is vague about how its income was distributed and who was involved. Ian Herbert pushes for a return to transparency and a focus on creativity rather than political correctness

As Arts Council England delivers Peter Hewitt’s parting gift to a stunned arts community – with 200 organisations large and small being given three weeks (including the Christmas break) to explain why they should keep their grant – it’s time to wonder whether all is as transparent as it was in Great Peter Street.

Next year sees a new face replacing Mr Hewitt – not before time – as Alan Davey vaults across from heading culture at the DCMS to lead the new-style, art form-free administration which seems to have been the secretary general’s major preoccupation over the last couple of years. It is, of course, unfortunate that one of the four major new super-chief appointees, Gus Casely-Hayward, should give up as director of strategy before his chair was even warm. Perhaps this will give Davey himself a chance to define arts council strategy – something which has been much discussed recently but to precious little effect.

Hewitt has been ten years in the job. In that time he has overseen the absorption of the regional arts boards into one national body.

His other task has been to make the council as politically correct as possible, a slave to Blairite targets and cultural fashions.

In 2007, he initiated The Arts Debate, an expensive exercise to find out what the council should be doing – a bit late in his ten-year tenure to admit he didn’t know. “For me,” he told the waiting world in November, “there are two important findings. There is widespread support for public funding of the arts, and the public is calling for the arts council to be a standard bearer for innovation.” I wonder how much it cost to achieve these two statements of the obvious. Whatever the cost, it doesn’t get us much nearer a strategy.

Curiously, you can’t find out the cost of The Arts Debate in the council’s recently published annual review. Indeed, compared with what the old council was telling us ten years ago in the parallel annual report, you can’t find out much at all. New legislation means that we can now learn the pay of its top executives (Mr Hewitt took home a total of £176,000 in salary, pension and bonus in 2006/7). We also learn a lot about its policy on equality and disability and the like (16% of staff are black or ethnic minority, 2% “regard themselves as disabled”).

But we get only the blandest of figures about how the council spent the £590 million it had at its disposal over the year. Roughly £140 million of it came from the Lottery and £430 million was from government grant in aid. On the outgoing side, £315 million was given to regularly-funded organisations, but is not accounted for by the review in detail. Administration costs for its nearly 900 employees amounted to around £50 million. Where did the rest of the money go? The review doesn’t say.

Let’s wander down the memory lane of the 1996/7 annual report. It was Grey Gowrie’s last as chairman, Mary Allen’s last as secretary general – indeed, she had already left to take up her brief tenure at Covent Garden. Early on, this report tells you that the 1997 grant in aid was down, at £185 million. The Lottery, however, was going strong with grants of £363 million, so that ACE, with its then 166 staff (not including the RABs, but every one of those 166 is named in the report, as indeed are the members of every RAB) was responsible for distributing much the same amount as last year – more if you add in inflation. Administrative costs – again, not including the RABs – were £7 million.

After an essay by David Puttnam, the 1997 report then gives some valuable, broad statistics, telling us the earned box office income of the various sectors, audience attendance figures, listing new work commissioned (1,300 in all, half from drama, dance and combined arts), giving details of touring work and per capita spending by region. All rather useful stuff, not easily available now and certainly not shown in the 2007 annual review.

The statistics are followed by reports from the council’s nine departments, now reorganised into ciphers, but then of great influence. The drama department was able to report on the debuts of Martin McDonagh and Ayub Khan Din and talk about a new training initiative and help for children’s theatre.

Of course, in those days they could call on a high-powered expert advisory panel. They also had practitioner-led committees, dealing with drama projects and new writing bursaries. It’s impressive to look at the advisors the drama department could call upon then – all gone now. Then come the 1997 accounts themselves, followed by 15 dense pages listing exactly who got what, from 44 Notting Hill Carnival bands given between £800 and £4,000, to the Royal Opera House getting its £20 million.

Individual Lottery commitments are listed, RAB by RAB, right down to the South London Barbershop Harmony Club’s £6,000. A separate list tables all projects given more than £100,000 in Lottery funding during the year.

Who served on Gowrie’s 1997 council? Leaving out the ten RAB chairs, it included art critic Richard Cork, film and TV producer Charles Denton, Christopher Frayling, festival director Gavin Henderson, theatre producer Thelma Holt, Deborah MacMillan from the dance world, poet Andrew Motion, arts broadcaster and former theatre administrator Stephen Phillips, public servant Usha Prashar, TMA president Prue Skene and Classic FM founding director John Spearman. Trevor Nunn had just resigned.

Frayling’s slimmed-down 2007 council, apart from its nine RAB stalwarts, has novelist Diran Adebayo, serial grant beneficiary and carnival designer Keith Khan, opera and festival director Brian McMaster, architect Elsie Owusu and visual arts expert Alice Rawsthorne. It ticks the ethnic box, but the drama box is dismayingly empty.

What we had ten years ago was a transparent arts council, led by respected arts professionals, relying on the advice of practitioners and doing pretty well at generating the “widespread support for the arts”. It also acted, through its 1,300 new work commissions and the newly established Lottery grants for the arts, as “a standard-bearer for innovation”.

What we have now looks very much like a bunch of navel-gazing, target-chasing representatives of various worthy, but in artistic terms minority groups, dedicated to nothing creative in particular and telling the public it serves very little about how it is serving them.

Now it makes policy, a month before McMaster tells us what it is, by sending out unexplained dismissal notices to a list it will not disclose. There may be some super people working for the council, but we’re not told who they are any more. Davey is going to have his work cut out.

In the most unlikely of places, Peter Gill’s introduction to the excellent Actors Speaking (Oberon, 2007), defines the problem more eloquently than I can. To quote a short part of his analysis, which all arts bureaucrats should be force-fed in full: “Most artistic directors, whatever their natural bent, are being increasingly turned into government apparatchiks as they struggle to reach targets entirely beside the main purpose.

“A certain kind of plausible, but not very able, face is becoming preferred. Any faith in the idea that the arts council is at arm’s reach from the government has long since gone. Restriction by government, ferried through the arts council, is greater than it has ever been.

“Most of the progressive ideas about inclusion in theatre come from men and women at the grass roots; subsequent bolt-on solutions dictated from on high are inauthentic. The theatre has now become over-professionalised and over-managed.”

Arts Council England’s response will be published in The Stage on Thursday, January 10, 2007

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