Go West is what NCA’s gotta do

Simon Tait is a former arts correspondent of The Times and is co-editor of Arts Industry magazine.
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The National Campaign for the Arts is not closing, its new chairman Sam West is very clear about that, but it’s changing. What he is not so clear about is what it will change into, or even if it will retain its name.

It’s 25 years in 2013 since Melvyn Bragg, Joan Bakewell and other thinking man’s celebrities set up the NCA because they were anxious about Mrs Thatcher’s apparent determination to see how far she could cut arts funding. It was supported by professional bodies such as Equity, the Society of London Theatre as it now is, the Musicians’ Union and the stage technicians’ union BECTU. It developed into a valuable research tool which helped to keep the government’s humbuggery in the limelight. But the agreement with the original funders expired in 1998 and it became a subscribers' organisation, losing its research role. Instead, it took up the vital cause of arts education, produced influential reports and organised key conferences.

In the last few years, though, with diminishing income the NCA has rather lost its way, as well as members. At one point a rival organisation was put forward by theatre and publishing figures, called Not The Arts Council, which was devised to present an opposition to the rather shambollic arts council as it was. There was a memorable “summit" in a café near the Old Vic at which the then NCA chair, former Mail on Sunday editor Stewart Steven, and Sir Peter Hall agreed to work together rather than apart to keep the arts council and other subsidising agencies up to the mark.

[pullquote]How long the NCA can continue to support arts campaigning depends on subscribers, but West is determined that it should be part of a debate[/pullquote]

But in 2011 and 2012 the NCA has been in trouble. It lost its director Louise de Winter, and was a long time finding another one of quality to come for the wages. The chair, John Bakewell, made way for Kate Adie who almost immediately announced that she was too busy to do the job properly, and an interim chair stood in.

And the word a couple of weeks ago was that the board had finally thrown in the towel: the NCA was to close. Sam West, who had been the voice of the NCA in its wilderness months, had to be sought out to find out what was actually happening. He decided to write directly to the membership.

“The NCA has had a difficult year as the double squeeze on local and national arts funding drove subscription funds down,” he wrote. “We haven’t been operating as we would have liked. The board has taken every step to cut costs to the bone, but we can’t continue in our present form”.

There are new economic models for the arts, and new possibilities to be determined, he said. “There are big challenges ahead, not least in Newcastle; if the 100% arts funding cut goes through there, many other local councils will be thinking ‘We could do that’. The sector must be mobilised, but how?”

For how long the NCA can continue to support arts campaigning depends on subscribers, but West is determined that it should be part of a debate to be sparked by a series of conferences organised by the What Next? group starting in February, where he hopes to speak.

“I’ve been on the board here for six years and in the lead up to the conferences I’m delighted to have been voted chair of the NCA. Continuity in such things is important.

“We hope that out of the discussions next spring a new public-facing campaign can build on the foundations the National Campaign for the Arts has laid during the last quarter of a century.”

The NCA’s problem is that, for all its influential chairs and hardworking directors (doing the job part-time now is Laura Willoughby), it has never had the heft that the likes of Peter Hall in his pomp could provide. In Sam West, however, it suddenly has one. He is as passionate a campaigner as his parents, Tim West and Prunella Scales, have been, education is his current priority, a skilled speaker, admired thinker and he is part of the new generation of theatre stars.

What has been lacking in the last three years has been a coherent campaign, rather than the random collective letters to the Guardian. The government has no interest in the arts, Mrs Miller won’t even meet our cultural leaders, and Mrs Thatcher is looking almost reasonable.

There was never a more urgent need for a strategic programme to bully the bullies into doing the right thing before it is too late, and subscribers to a National Campaign for the Arts spearheaded by Sam West could be providing the opposition to the official indifference to the importance of culture in our separate and collective lives we must have if our arts are to survive in any meaningful way.