Soft power’s big daddy

Peter Bazalgette. Photo: Philippa Gedge

The new Arts Council England chairman is a dapper 59 year-old, whose trim frame gives the lie to his second favourite recreation, according to Who’s Who, of gluttony. His first is opera, and although many saw him as an arts outsider when his appointment was announced as Jeremy Hunt’s parting shot on leaving the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, his insider credentials are strong.

Peter Bazalgette has written often in the Daily Telegraph and The Times on arts policy, particularly on how it is impinged on by digital technology, and for a year was on the DCMS’ advisory board, which debated the department’s very future following the 2012 Olympics.

And almost the same day that the headhunters came calling on behalf of the culture secretary, he was elected chair of English National Opera, of which he had been deputy chair, a board member for eight years and in change of its fundraising.

[pullquote]Cuts, reductions, local authorities, yes. But it’s actually a rather wonderful time to take over the arts council, in the sense that we’ve just hosted the Olympics ceremonies were a fantastic iteration of how world-class our arts and culture is. So, yes, it’s a tough time, but actually it’s a very exciting thing to do.[/pullquote]

It is ironic, he says, that just as he takes his seat at ACE, ENO is declaring its biggest deficit in recent times. “It was a poor, tough, difficult year, in which we won all the opera awards but had a poor box office,” he says.

Some might think that having presided over a £2.2m deficit at an ACE-subsidised company would disqualify anyone from taking charge of the arts council itself, but Bazalgette is unabashed. “Actually, it’s given me quite an insight into what it’s like running an arts company at the moment, in that you’ve got to keep up box office and you’ve got to improve your fundraising,” he says.

He was chair for seven months before recently stepping down, but previously as deputy chairman Bazalgette had raised ENO’s fundraising from a base of less than £2 million to more than £3.5 million: “The way I’ve left it, this year the deficit will be halved, and everybody’s setting a very tough budget to balance it next year. So I know how tough it is out there.”

The TV executive, who brought us Ready Steady Cook, Changing Rooms and, his greatest crime for some critics, Big Brother, was persuaded to apply for the ACE job. With the then-culture secretary’s stated wish for someone who was convinced about arts philanthropy and was part of the digital revolution, there can have been little doubt as to whether or not he would get it.

But why would he want it? With a 30% arts cut in 2011-14, more on top in 2013 and 2014, the arts council itself forced to slash its own operation by half, and a comprehensive spending review due this year promising more misery, circumstances do not promise fulfillment.

“Yes, I know,” he says. “Cuts, reductions, difficulties, local authorities – but it’s marvellous, you know, and it’s actually a rather wonderful time to take over the arts council, in the sense that we’ve just hosted the Olympics, and those opening and closing ceremonies were a fantastic iteration of how world-class our arts and culture is. And so, yes, it’s a tough time, but actually it’s a very exciting thing to do.”

A fundamental difference with his predecessor Liz Forgan is over the halving of the arts council’s administration, an issue Forgan was prepared to stand and fight over – a fight she lost. “It was a wholly necessary move in order to protect the arts organisations themselves as much as possible,” Bazalgette says. “If it was a given that the arts council’s grant-in-aid would be cut by 29.6%, then restricting [that of] the national portfolio organisations to a 15% cut [a stipulation of Hunt’s to keep the worst of the pain from the front line], soaking up the rest centrally was the right response.”

They would agree, though, on the critical importance of local authority arts funding, particularly to regional theatre. We speak as Newcastle is still planning to cut all of its arts funding, but the following day it is announced that the council has rethought and developed a package with just a 50% cut, a deal that seems to have been brokered by ACE.

“My point to councils like Newcastle is, ‘There is another way’,” says Bazalgette. “We can’t replace the money. But we can commit, and we can even imaginatively help them administer their money to keep it going to the front line.”

Regional theatre is the lifeblood of West End success, he says, not only because of the training our actors, directors, writers and technicians get there, but also because of the product itself, such as The Judas Kiss, which transferred from Hampstead Theatre to a successful run at the Duke of York’s.

Bazalgette believes whole-heartedly in the untapped potential of philanthropy – so far worth 1% of the charity cake – as a source of arts funding, but not as a means of replacing subsidy. Business sponsorship has “fallen off a cliff”, he says, but arts council funding can be a catalyst to persuade individual givers, and ACE is tasked with developing a strategy for attracting more.

And what of ACE’s parent, the DCMS, itself halved in size and next month moving out of its own premises to share with the Treasury? From his insider’s seat, Bazalgette believes the threat of abolition has passed.

“There was a worry that post-Olympics – such an enormous thing it had to do – that it wouldn’t still be able to stand as a ministry on its own,” he says. “But actually, it’s been given extra responsibility for broadband and 4G, which has made DCMS a more important ministry with economic responsibilities.

“Our job at the arts council is to remind DCMS and any other politician we can get hold of that we are part of that process, too.”

A gleam comes to his eye with mention of the digital prospect, of which The Space, the arts council’s portal it devised with the BBC, is only the start, he says. Five years ago, Bazalgette made a speech advocating a new public service with content from arts organisations. He lobbied the BBC, and The Space resulted. ACE is now planning the next two phases. “The UK should have a really exciting arts pool,” he says. “In the next ten years there will be a massive opportunity from digital to deliver lots more arts and culture to lots more people in lots of different places.”

The arts and culture are, he believes, a major economic asset for the UK, as he will keep reminding politicians, but as a by-product: “Let me be clear, we don’t put money into arts and culture because we’re looking to grow the economy. We do it because of the manifest, intrinsic advantages to our sense of identity, our cultural and educational life, our intelligence, emotional health and well-being. We know those things but they need to be repeated,” he says.

“But the corollary of putting money into the arts is that it does have economic benefit. We do fund companies that are responsible for some wonderful cultural exports. And as they say, where soft power goes, trade goes.”