Keynes’s Arts Council Suffers Rebuke in Budget Cuts: Commentary

George Osborne
U.K. Chancellor George Osborne. He announced that national galleries and museums will be trimmed 15 percent over four years which is broadly manageable and won’t require the shutdown, layoffs and exhibition cancellations. Photographer: Pankaj Nangia/Bloomberg

The U.K.’s visual-arts sector got off lightly in Chancellor George Osborne’s spending review while the performing arts got hammered. That’s the headline assessment, and the figures seem to bear it out --superficially, at least.

The real impact is more diverse and interesting, in some instances devastating.

Spending on national galleries and museums will be trimmed 15 percent over four years which, at about 4 percent a year, is broadly manageable and won’t require the shutdown, layoffs and exhibition cancellations that would have been necessitated by a predicted 30 percent cut.

Museums will continue to offer free admission, an enlightened policy of the former Labour Party government that draws more people each year to galleries than to professional soccer, the national sport.

By stark contrast, Arts Council England (ACE), which in 2010-11 is distributing 449 million pounds ($708 million) in Treasury revenue to thousands of performing and creative bodies, will take about a 100 million pound average hit every year over four years. At the end of the four-year period, the council will receive a grant of 350 million pounds in real terms, amounting to a 29.6 percent cut in its subsidy.

The ACE has been told to protect regularly funded “frontline” companies -- such as the Royal Opera House (getting 28.3 million pounds) and the National Theatre (19.6 million pounds) -- within a 15 percent reduction. What this means is limited damage. The ROH and English National Opera (17.9 million pounds) might have to drop new productions by one or two per season. That’s no big deal.

Strong Rebuke

The cuts will bite the smaller fry. The ACE has regular funding arrangements with 880 ensembles and awards informal grants to some 4,000 more. Its freedom to foster new ventures has been stunted. It also was ordered to halve administration costs -- a humiliating rebuke after a recent slimming took 21 percent off structural costs.

Still, the ACE is a byword for bloating its bureaucracy to supervise the rules it keeps inventing. Even as Osborne’s axe was falling, the council still was advertising online for a Governance Officer in London and a Relationship Manager, Digital and Creative Economy, in Yorkshire, a job whose connection to making art is oblique, to say the least.

The Arts Council, created in 1945 by the economist John Maynard Keynes to nurture cultural renewal in a war-devastated economy, has suffered the greatest reversal in its history.

Forgan’s Failure

The chairwoman, Liz Forgan, ex-head of Guardian Media Group Plc and a Labour loyalist, adopted a muted role in recent months, having failed to sway Conservative and Liberal Democrat opinion toward her paper-driven empire.

A price needs to be paid.

When the ACE meets next week to discuss the allocation of cuts to clients around the country, initially a flat cut of 10 percent, both chair and chief executive should offer their resignations for presiding over the worst reversal in U.K. history of state funding for the arts.

Resignation is the honorable course of action in defeat -- and this has been a catastrophic debacle for the ACE, a public declaration of no-confidence.

By contrast, museums, from the moment the coalition government was formed, mobilized business people on their boards who donate to the coalition parties to make their case at the highest level.

MacGregor’s Profile

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, was on BBC Radio every week with “A History of the World in 100 Objects,” drawing 10 million downloads. The profile of museums never has been higher and the government prudently backed off.

Inevitably, all is not as it seems. While London-based “national” galleries such as the BM, the V&A and the Tate have been saved from radical surgery, regional museums like Oxford’s Ashmolean and the Ulster Museum of Belfast are in jeopardy. Schisms also have appeared in the museum world between the BM’s MacGregor and Tate’s Nicholas Serota as to whether funding should focus on tradition or on contemporary art -- an argument that will grow more rancorous over the next four years of tightened belts.

In performing arts, for example, the outstanding City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under the young conductor Andris Nelsons, will suffer a double-whammy cut both on its ACE grant and on money from the city council. Birmingham’s touring opera company will struggle to survive. The promises of politicians will sound emptier in the provinces than in London.

Chance for Reform

Yet there is room for maneuver. Although the government has ring-fenced funding for the 2012 Olympic Games, a parallel Cultural Olympiad, headed by the ROH’s Chief Executive Tony Hall, can and should be cut with impunity and the money redistributed elsewhere.

Changes at the Arts Council and the removal of its top brass will abolish a screed of politically correct objectives and free up new leaders to pursue a Keynesian agenda of renewal.

Cooperation with the British Broadcasting Corporation on cultural ventures -- job-protecting anathema in the past -- soon could become a reality. Amid the cries of pain across British arts, there are audible sighs of relief at the limits of the damage and the chance for reform.

(Norman Lebrecht is a critic for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. His book, “Why Mahler?,” is newly published by Pantheon. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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