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Industry leaders welcome McMaster’s “excellent” review

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Former Edinburgh International Festival chief Brian McMaster’s government-commissioned review into excellence in the arts has been welcomed as “excellent” and “challenging” by leading figures within the industry.

The report, which has been endorsed by culture secretary James Purnell, encourages a move from “crude top-down targets” towards judgements of art based on intrinsic quality. It also advocates that ten of the country’s most innovative arts companies be given ten-year funding settlements, there should be an increased level of peer assessment and that publicly funded companies should look to introduce an annual “free week”, in which ticket prices are waived to encourage wider access to the arts.

National Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner told The Stage: “Both [the free week and extended funding] are excellent, challenging ideas. We’re looking forward to working with DCMS and the arts council to see how they can be achieved.”

Meanwhile Alistair Spalding, chief executive of Sadlers Wells and chair of Dance UK, added: “It is fantastic news that there is now a clear focus on excellence, innovation and risk, an attitude that has always been there in the dance sector but not always supported by the infrastructure that surrounds it.

“I am also particularly pleased that the report signals a reconsideration of the value of peer assessment. People will be much more comfortable with decisions that are made if they feel there is some representation by those that have a working knowledge of the sector.”

One of McMaster’s more specific recommendations is that there needs to be an increased focus on touring following the closure of Arts Council England’s dedicated department, a problem which has previously been raised by the Theatrical Management Association.

The move was praised by TMA president Derek Nichols, who last year pushed for the TMA to be given an official advisory role by ACE. He commented: “I’m delighted that he has singled out touring, because it is pretty much the only sector that has been singled out. He has picked up exactly the problem that TMA has been discussing for a few months. It is an unfortunate fall-out of the regionalisation of the arts council that they have taken their eye off the national strategy.”

However, Nichols added that the recently proposed ACE funding cuts threatened to make the touring situation worse before McMaster’s suggestions could be put into practice.

Equity also raised concerns over the implementation of the review in the light of ACE’s recent funding decisions. General secretary Christine Payne said: “Equity welcomes the move away from the crude box-ticking of the past ten years as a way of measuring the value of the public funding of theatre, and welcomes McMaster’s proposal that theatre should be judged on the excellence of its art.

“However, it is clear from the meeting of actors and other theatre practitioners at the Young Vic that the theatre community has no confidence that the arts council, as it currently operates, is fit to judge what is excellent in theatre.”

Meanwhile the National Campaign for the Arts, while broadly welcoming McMaster’s proposals, also raised concerns about their implementation. NCA director Louise de Winter warned that McMaster’s definitions of “excellence, innovation and risk” needed closer inspection and that the NCA wanted to see a clear timetable explaining how the recommendations would be implemented.

McMaster’s recommendations:

  • The board of every cultural organisation should contain at least two artists and/or practitioners.
  • All publicly funded cultural organisations should remove admission charges for everyone for one week each year to improve access.
  • The ten most innovative cultural companies should receive ten-year funding packages to support their ambition.
  • Funding bodies such as ACE must move to a new assessment method based on self-assessment and peer review.
  • A new way forward must be found that reclaims a strategic approach to touring work.

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