Jan 10, 2008

My Inevitable Two Cents on the Arts Council Hootenanny


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]


alexf said...

Hi Andy

I keep seeing this come up, but i've never actually seen a reference to anything substantial - what is the existential threat to the Arts Council? Who is actually trying to shut it down? What plans are there by any political parties or even individual politicians to remove it and place responsibility for apportioning arts funding directly in the hands of a government department?

Ben said...

Well. For a vision of what the ACE may look like, if, say, a government did want to "restructure" it.

Let's look to the British Council

After earlier in 2007 disbanding its advisory panels in the Arts, which were made up of volunteers, the executive board of the British Council has in December 2007 decided to to get rid of its departments of film, drama, dance, literature, design, and the visual arts and instead organise its cultural staff into panels with the titles:

Progressive Facilitation,
Market Intelligence Network, Knowledge Transfer Function and Modern Pioneer.

I kid you not. Hm.

film, drama, dance, literature, design, and the visual arts => progressive facilitation.

alexf said...

yeah, but the executive board of the British Council did that, and they deserve to be roundly condemned and mocked in equal measure for doing so, but i don't see how that's relevant to the Arts Council, now. Seriously, unless there's some kind of specific threat to it, unless someone in government is actually talking about "retructuring" this speculation is i. baseless and ii. counterproductive. The arts council HAS fucked up. It's fucked up here specifically, but its been fucking up for years. i can remember a grand total of one practitioner i've had a conversation with who's had anything good to say about them. And that was partly because he was misinformed about their strategy, goals, and rhetoric. They have to be called on this, because if they aren't they'll continue to fuck up for many years to come. And pointing to some mythical possible situation that might be worse even though there's no actual evidence that anyone is contemplating implementing it is not a good enough reason for not condemning incompetence and dishonesty (because that's what we have in this specific case) in the strongest possible terms, and its certainly not a good enough reason for condemning those that do. More to the point, we need Sam West and Joanna Lumley publicly making a noise about what the Arts Council have done because they when we up-and-comings make a noise we don't get heard. Not by the people that matter and, and not by the public.

Also - bear in mind that even if the rich and famous are protesting - it's the really small scale who've been hit hardest in the last year - by the cut in the Grants for the Arts budget which supports those who aren't established enough to even think about being regularly funded. As much as Hewitt talks as though this raft of cuts is about keeping the door open for new companies, much of the money is going to retrench the establishment - the WYP, the Roundhouse and so on. Nothing wrong with either of those places, but they aren't barely scraping by.

Andrew Field said...

Well, the existential threat to the arts council comes primarily from the increasing erosion of its independence from government. Not only have the now completely abolished peer review but the, Alan Davey, the newly appointed chief executive is a career civil servant who is coming directly from DCMS, where he was director of Arts and Culture. This would suggest that already government is of the opinion that ACE can be run by government with no involvement of artists or audiences, a fact that undoubtedly undermines the efficacy of the institution.

Secondly, if Equity are raising a vote of no confidence and suggesting that ACE is already 'irreprably damaged' then implicitly seeking its abolition - under which circumstances the distribution of funding would necessarily resort back to government.

As far as the conservatives are concerned, I'd recommend this as an early marker of their position. Plus a quick scan of Jeremy Hunt's (shadow DCMS minister)website shows that the only comment he has made on the subject of ACE is to throw his weight into the present round of criticisms. Otherwise there is not a single mention of the arts at all, and his only conference speech to do focused exclusively on the importance of sport in schools.

David Eldridge said...

Good on you Andy.

Andrew Field said...

Alex f,

I'm not suggesting that criticism isn't valid but its the language and nature of it that I find uncomfortable. It is fundamentally unproductive. I don't mind them making noise I just wish there was a better way to do it - how about, as one prominent journalist suggested recently, an open letter to the Arts Council (reprinted in, say, The Guardian) signed by all those people that set out some much needed reforms. I think just calling a meeting, shouting at a man who is about to leave anyway and then declaring 'no confidence' does nothing but allow Jeremy Hunt and his ilk to look representative of the theatre population as a whole when they criticise ACE and (potentially) call for its abolishment.

I mean how stupid will we all look if we're calling ACE 'irreprably damaged' now and then in 2 years time when (theoretical when I know) the Conservatives call for its abolision we are all demanding that it doesn't happen. Or, more worryingly, no one is actually bothered.

And as for the distribution of the funding - of course its only the established institutions that we know about for the moment because only those groups that already receieve money have been informed of their prospective uplift. Those new companies who might be supported don't know yet because nothing can be confirmed until all of the appeals have been heard and the ACE knows how much money it has to play with. Plus I think company's like Unlimited and Shunt do point to some positive decisions on ACE's part - albeit delivered in the most scandalously cack-handed manner.

alexf said...

But Equity aren't suggesting that the Arts Council are irreperably damaged. One actor is suggesting that they are "possibly irreperably damaged". Which is really quite different. And the vote of no confidence was a vote of no confidence in the Arts Council "as it is now". How much confidence do you have in the Arts Council as it is now? Me - i've got none. That, for example, Hewitt claims there's been a 9% increase in funding for new writing, and they are simultaneously cutting the Bush beggars belief. It's stupid and incompetent.

And according to everything i've read, one of the key demands of those you're condemning was the reinstatement of peer review. As for Davey - well i'm not holding out much hope that he's going to remould the beauraucratic landscape, but i don't see much difference between a civil servant who's worked his way up through the arts council and a civil servant who's worked his way up through DCMS. The best possible scenario i can think of is that he inherits an artistic community which has demonstrated that it is angry and not to be messed with so that he knows that he HAS to find a new way to engage with the artistic community. Callous as it sounds, this mess needs to be public and the finger of blame needs to be firmly pointed, because that's the only way that there'll be consequences for Peter Hewitt. And there being consequences for people who fuck up is one of the ways we make it in the interests of those who take over those jobs not to fuck up.

alexf said...

oops - i took so long to write that last one that it's a cross-post.

and, like you, i agree with some of the decisions, but they've been arrived at by through a process which has been slightly less efficient than shutting your eyes, spinning round very fast, and seeing who you end up pointing at. i know, for example, that there were people from Unlimited at that meeting, and i'm sure there were many more from organisations who have received a funding increase.

Andrew Field said...

Actually Christine Payne is Equity's General Secretary so you'd imagine - at a meeting called by her own institution - she's airing a somewhat representative sentiment.

Although fair play it is indeed a vote of no confidence in the as it is now, an important rejoinder that I hope doesn't get lost in the hyperbole (mine included).

And that certainly was a rocket up Hewitt's arse - I just think it was the wrong arse and the wrong time. And I don't know if we've demonstrated that we're 'not to be messed with' or whether we've just dropped our H-bomb prematurely and in the wrong direction, strengthening a position none of us agrees with.

And I have to agree with you about Davey. It's not that he is a civil servant per se, it's that he is an intimate part of the mechanisms of DCMS that I object to - friendly relationship just doesn't cover it. Not that ACE should be by default in opposition to the government, but it should be fighting the artist's corner. If you're the one that's been setting government policy for the last however many years it's not a stretch to this job (working so intimately with your former colleagues) as merely an extension of that.

Andrew Field said...

Obviously that should be disagree with you about Davey.

alexf said...

fair point on Christine Payne - my bad and my ignorance, but i still think the possibly is a pretty key word to leave out there.

And do you not think we're seeing that we can't rely on ACE to fight the artist's corner as things stand? At least, not in any way that doesn't end up with the artists lining up to fight them.

i have no confidence that a bureaucrat will fight for arts funding. At best they might fight for funding for an arts bureaucracy. The interesting possibility is that this mess is the catalyst for a dawning militarism within the arts community, and that artists might be prepared to stand together to fight for arts funding.

Andrew Field said...

No we certainly can't rely on them at the moment.

And maybe I'm just in one of those moods where I suffer from a faint disolusionment with my fellow man, but I see it as a vision of quite the opposite.

All across the Guardian blog artists are tearing strips out of each other. It's all hot air firing off in all directions.

I don't think its difficult to rouse the arts community to be annoyed at something and shout a lot, I think its a damned sight harder to get them walking in the same direction.

And I think you're being a trifle unfair on these nameless 'bureaucrats'. I know Jon S for one has talked about how he has a positive and strong relationship with his ACE, and I've met ACE officers with a real passion for and a commitment to theatre.

I think peer review is an absolutely vital part of the process - but I also think this should be about partnership.

Otherwise its a brave panel of artists who will choose to cut a popular (within the theatre community) company in favour of a less well known newcomer.

danbye said...

I'm one of those few people who has some small number of good things to say about ACE - but like Jon S, that's because of a strong and positive relationship with one particularly engaged and aware officer. It is, in fact, the same officer. Judging by the strength of feeling over recent weeks, and the obvious incompetence behind the decision making in most - if not all - regions, then ours is the only good officer in the country (no, he's not NSDF's officer, before you ask).

Given the amount of bureaucracy in ACE you would have thought they could at least follow their own procedures for disinvestment, but in numerous cases - if not the whole raft - they've failed to do that. I for one certainly have no confidence in the system as it is now. But that means I want to talk about how to improve it, and I certainly don't think a vote of no confidence should mean collapse.

One additional point - peer review, in the old days, was done in secret. This was probably for the best, and no-one I've spoken to thinks doing away with peer review was a good thing.

alexf said...

sorry to bang on, but, point of information - i've just read a report from the meeting and Christine Payne didn't say ACE are fundamentally and possibly irreparably damaged. She said:

"Unless Arts Council England not only listens to the concerns of people here today but actually takes action to respond to them then the credibility of Arts Council England could be fundamentally and possibly irreparably damaged."

Chris said...

Good stuff as ever, Andy. The Equity meeting seems to have been nothing but the insult that the ACE injury presumably was seen to require.

I can't see ACE being actually itself in jeopardy any time soon. DCMS are obviously going to buy big into McMaster (which seems positive on the whole) and ACE is not necessarily an inadequate mechanism for activating that agenda. We might feel queasy about the intimacy between the two: but we also seem to be moving (importantly and finally) away from the arts being seen as primarily a delivery mechanism for nebulous government policy on social inclusion. So in a way, a greater distance is opening up.

Nor do I imagine that Equity are taken that seriously by anyone other than themselves; nor, I'm sure, would Equity press further if the Arts Council actually seemed to be under threat.

I should like to point out that all of the above is just more speculative bollocks. Happy to be of service.

& sorry if you thought my remonstrating with David E on the Graun blog was out of order. Perhaps it was. I do think we have to be super-careful how we phrase things at the moment. But I probably should have said so backchannel to David rather than on the public board. I just thought it urgently needed to be challenged.

Point of order: I think you meant to say in your italicised codicil that you've never had your work directly funded by ACE.

Neither have I, fwiw, but I'm absolutely with you on the importance of their continued existence, flipwads that they are.

all bests

Andrew Field said...

Thanks Alex,

That's interesting to know - and interesting that the comment was truncated during in the Guardian's reportage (well, by this point in this debate if you've been following from the beginning interesting is all relative - something that, along with friends, has long since abandoned you).

And Chris, have been following you, Tassos and David's conversation with interesting as it has waltzed all over the internets and only wishing I had something worthwhile to add that you and Tass haven't already said. In these circumstances I'm always drawn back to your notion of writing for theatre as about the most inclusive formulation possible.

Anyway as all have said, fascinating arguments for another time.

Thanks all (alex, ben, chris, david) for this - invigorating stuff.


Sean said...

Astonishingly, I agree with you almost totally Andy. This is one of the most sensible contributions to the debate anywhere, and it is grounded in reality (well, I don’t think ACE is going anywhere soon, but you never know). Saving student drama and the Bush need not mean smashing the system, and calling for that without the power to do anything about it simply helps breaks down relationships (and lobbying power, if you’re at war you’ve fired your guns), makes ACE’s job more difficult, and the likelihood of further emasculation greater.

However I do find it interesting that you take such a seemingly establishment position, you are an obdurate iconoclast surely!?