Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Chairs Missing



You can picture the scene, can't you? The cabinet are relaxing after another busy day, roasting a Lib Dem on the fire, throwing a ball for Nick Clegg and laughing when he brings it back but won't let go, and then the big boys turn to Jeremy Hunt. 'I say Hunt, what have you done lately? Bugger all, you arty wimp. Gove's been busy, setting schools free and into the arms of our chums. Lansley's privatised the NHS in all but name. Bunter's abolished the regions, and we've even told the cheap northern public sector scum they're going to get paid what they're worth same as their useless neighbours. Gideon's manned up this week, and cut tax - though more next year old man, okay? - And stuck it to the workshy coffin dodgers. We're even taking on our own, running high speed trains through their back gardens. What have you been up to for the last two years, bar making James Naughtie famous for evermore?'


Hunt looks at them, hurt. 'I've abolished loads of things. And I did what you said about the money - and then rang our friends up to reassure them the Arts Council would do the right thing by them. We pretty much got away with that one.'


'It's hardly rolling back the welfare state is it, Jer? Still too many lefty artists whinging. And we're sick of pretending to like bloody Tracy Emin... We don't want to get away with things. We want the Guardianistas up in arms and the Mail slapping our backs. Get out of here and do something that shows us you're one of us.'


At which they throw their bread buns at the unfortunate Minister, who exits muttering in Japanese, whilst the rest break into a chorus of their current favourite stolen terrace chant:


'We do what we want, we do what we wa-ant, we're your natural rulers, we do what we want.'


Last week's surprise sacking of Liz Forgan as chair of Arts Council England - which is what the refusal to renew her term clearly was - shows a few things.


1. Dame Liz has not been giving DCMS an easy time about the messy end of the stick ACE were given in the spending round, and he's got a bit sick of it. The army's length principle is much misunderstood, and it is a democratically-elected minister's prerogative to choose someone a bit more 'aligned', but this shows it is far from easy.


2. When you feel you can do what you want, you don't always make logical choices. Hunt says Forgan has done an outstanding job, but still wants rid halfway through a no doubt tortuous, but absolutely vital, reorganisation to save 50% of the administrative costs at ACE. (Following one in 2010 for the last government which took out 15%.) It makes as much sense as prioritising philanthropy in your policies and then changing tax regime in a way which makes it harder to give major gifts. (Which is exactly what Osbourne did last week if you missed it. Foundations have already begun a Give It Back George campaign.)


3. Another illogicality is getting rid of one chair for another to focus on philanthropy and digital. Firstly, digital begs the question what Hunt think Forgan does as chair of the Scott Trust that governs The Guardian - surely digital comes up occasionally around that table? On philanthropy, this could suggest an even greater emphasis on private gifts in the funding mix implicit in the next spending round, and a sense that ACE needs more rich people around the table. This flows, I suspect, from a mistaken but persistent sense that 'the arts don't understand or do business' and that rich people know about philanthropy. What arts organisations need are not platitudes, or cheerleading reinventions (like much of Catalyst, I'm afraid), but clear support and guidance - and the growth of giving networks for the arts.


I am sorry to see Dame Liz Forgan have to go. She was a hardworking and powerful presence around Great Peter Street, and brought a good balance of support and challenge to both ACE staff (at least in my time, and I hear no evidence of change) and the sector and our orthodoxies. It's a shame she wasn't there in more propitious times. Who follows her will be a crucial signal of the extent to which this government seeks to impose its values on a sector which is, to a large extent, resistant. We should try and articulate what kind of chair can represent, support and challenge the sector whilst meeting the 'particular challenges, not least around the digital and philanthropy agendas', as Hunt put it in his letter


We need someone who can put those areas into proper perspective and context, and lead a much smaller organisation as well, in a way which maintains the best of the current way of working and sheds some of the less-helpful tendencies, such as the rampant schemification of funding and some worrying signs of what I've heard described several times recently as micromanagement. I've a list headed 'Heaven help us all' and a shorter one headed 'Would be good but unlikely to be picked'...Who's on yours?

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