Arts Council England.
Where do we start?
It’s not been a good week. Following several bouts of preparatory sparring, the theatre community yesterday were able to give executive director Peter Hewitt the bloodthirsty pummelling that they so wanted to – huing and crying and soapboxing and sound biting and generally performing a faintly repulsive and entirely unhelpful pantomime of aphoristic declamations, neatly rounded off by a headline grabbing and debate-suffocating ‘vote of no confidence’. Well done, well done all of you.
The problem for me is that arts community is now ostensibly holding a knife to its own nose and threatening to cut it off. Everything, everything, should be done to salvage the Arts Council. The alternatives are frankly terrifying – money handed out directly by a government who, in a couple of years time, are likely to be run by a man who has already demonstrated his contemptuous and smugly populist attitude towards theatre and the arts. A party and an ideology that fundamentally questions why theatre that is not able to make a profit should receive government funding to allow ‘artists’ to ponce around enjoying themselves.
Without the Arts Council what’s going to happen when funding quickly begins to be cut funding altogether, or to be channelled into what Mr Cameron terms ‘right[or should that be Right] causes’? Are we going to wheel out Sir Ian McKellan and Kevin Spacey again, to complain about our livelihoods being taken away? Will they be greeted with anything more than the disinterestedly amused tone of Mark Brown’s article (in The Guardian, for Christ’s sake, heaven forbid what the Daily Mail or The Telegraph would say)?
The Arts Council must be saved. This for me is a first principal – good theatre in this country (of any stripe) will not survive without it. Which is why I look at events like yesterday’s, and comments like Christine Payne’s (suggesting the ACE are "fundamentally and possibly irreparably damaged") as being almost as damaging to theatre as anything the arts council is doing. It’s all well and good rich Actors and Artistic Directors making melodramatic votes of no confidence in the ACE – it’s not their careers that are staked on its survival.
What we need is to begin to lobby for practical steps that can be taken to help revive an Arts Council who desperately need it. A new Chairman is about to be installed. Let’s prepare a series of positive changes to suggest to him (that may include reference to specific cuts) rather than machine gunning his predecessor – a man, who, frankly, is in no position to make concessions about the future of the ACE when he’s clearing his desk out in a couple of weeks time.
At Devoted and Disgruntled the two things that came up repeatedly from both those who were being supported by the arts council and those who were being cut, was more transparency and the inclusion of more peer review. Boom. There you go. That’s a start (one that the ever valiant Lyn Gardner has continues to trumpet on the Guardian Blog repeatedly, seeming ever more like an increasingly desperate Cassandra, watching the predicted disaster unfold in front of her).
There are two many agendas swilling around at the moment. People are too freely using ACE’s obvious failings as a stick with which to beat them for the decisions they have come to. People are all too quick to fly from these specific failings into a wholesale battle for the soul of theatre. I don’t support the idea of an arts council because I think it is likely to promote the kind of theatre I want, I don’t criticise it because it isn’t; I do both because with an Arts Council I simply won’t have the opportunity to make work, period. Or at least, it’ll be an awful lot harder. In this unreasoned maelstrom the claims of those with perfectly valid reasons to complain are diluted and misappropriated.
Look at the Bush for example. The Bush has my unqualified support in its attempts to reinstate its funding. It is an institution that continues to discover and support wonderful, talented theatre makers. It is unashamedly a small theatre and all the better for it. For a theatre to have so much influence and so much scope and such a legacy when it has less than 90 seats is a cause for celebration not for punishment. It is exactly the kind of place that can’t sustain itself on turnover and deserves the ACE’s support. That is all there is to it. Now how about we stop using this to draw a spurious line in the sand between modes of practise that, like some petty-minded War of the Roses, asks us to pick between two arbitrary constructs that relate nothing to the actual production of work.
Who’s voices are missing in all of this? Most of the time it’s the young companies. Those companies that don’t have a voice yet but in a few years (with the support of the Arts Council) might be doing some of the most exciting, wonderful, relevant things in theatre. For now, they remain obscured. They are the flipside to these cuts. They are the reason for these cuts. And though I don’t begrudge anyone failing to go gently into that sweet night, it’s important to remember that they must be given an opportunity to blossom, and that that opportunity will come at someone else’s expense. It’s tough. Brutal, in fact. And almost anyone making theatre must feel that their work is vital and significant and deserving of the ACE’s support, but there will never be enough to go round. While the water continues to be muddied between what the arts council has done and how they’ve done it, it is these young companies that will essentially suffer.
Or rather, it is everyone who will eventually suffer, for not cherishing a flawed, vital concept enough. For reaching for the knife when everybody else was, for joining a confused legion of conflicting agendas and collectively delivering ACE a vindictive death blow. If we don’t watch out, in the sweltering heat of this year’s messy protestations, we’ll do more harm than any ACE Chief Executive ever did.
[For the record, although I have worked for a variety of institutions that have been well-supported by ACE, in my capacity as a theatre maker I have had work directly funded by them]