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PN Review 276
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This item is taken from PN Review 47, Volume 12 Number 3, January - February 1986.

GOVERNMENTS with policies for The Arts might be suspected of having designs on them. Perhaps, then, we have grounds to be grateful for the lack of coherence in the present government's approach to the issue. It doesn't seem to care much. The Glory of the Garden marked not a radical change in policy so much as a change in presentation. The Arts Council is no longer perceived as a unique, independent organ but as an inherited problem. It would look bad to disband it, but it shouldn't be encouraged, either. All the same, though there have been cuts in one place, there have been increases elsewhere. The regions have what is officially called a 'bigger slice of the cake'. It's all a matter of who signs the cheques. Her Majesty's Opposition has no coherent policies either, if we are to believe the Shadow Minister. At the Cambridge Poetry Festival he said he would 'spend more money', a promise he may or may not keep. The Alliance no doubt has a whole quiverful of policies, each with a price tag attached.

It always comes back to money: how much, to whom, by whom. While funds are there, people will squabble and patrician voices will call for the abolition of state subsidy. In the arts, as in social life at large, economics have supplanted politics. We hold the state responsible for thwarting initiatives, for holding back, for not increasing grants even 'in line with inflation'.

And quite right, too, since the state in recent decades has progressively led us to regard it as the patron. Private patronage has been dealt a decisive blow. Business patronage increases, to the delight of the present Minister who has set out to 'sell the arts to industry'. Such patronage comes all too often from advertising budgets. The arts may be well and truly sold. The 'facelift' for the Whitbread Prize, management of which has been entrusted to a leading publicity firm which wants to put more 'pizzazz' into the whole affair, to bring more emphatic credit to its sponsor, shows the kinds of return such sponsorship quite properly requires.

Had Ian Hamilton Finlay suffered the withdrawal of an Arts Council grant, he could have counted on a chorus of rage from fraternal artists and writers. As it is, he suffered something less comprehensible to them. Being victimized by a local authority, unassisted (when not actively hindered) by the very bodies set up to advise local government and advance the cause of the arts, he stands isolated. The issue is not money. It has no bankable reality.

A properly conservative government might be expected to acknowledge the need for assistance to the arts in our present environment. It might be expected to articulate a coherent arts policy, based on existing institutions, with two objectives: to guarantee the long-term independence of a variety of arts enterprises; and to limit the remit but require the independence and answerability of the Arts Councils and Regional Associations.

The first objective might require a modest adjustment to the Arts Council's Charter. Every year selected enterprises would be assigned an experienced officer whose task would be to supply the expertise to make sound business structures, to promote and publicise, and to perfect financially enterprises of proven artistic worth. At the end of a year the officer would assess the requirements and potential of the enterprise. Arts Council or Regional Association would then provide capital at a realistic level, retaining thereafter only an advisory interest. This would come to replace the 'gradual transfusion grant' which makes the client dependent and vulnerable to economic and political change. The capital sums would in all likelihood be equivalent to no more than two years' grant aid. More complex and costly, but still worth considering in certain circumstances, is an endowment scheme.

The root of the matter is still money, but money as a means rather than an end, and accompanied by kinds of expertise which are otherwise hard to come by. Independent organizations would emerge. The Arts Council-a genuine midwife-would be free to attend at other bedsides.

The second objective is clearly political. The Arts Council is still, it seems to me, an 'arm's length' institution, not subject to direct political control. But the arm is visibly shorter than it was ten or fifteen years ago. The Council, and therefore its clients, are vulnerable as never before-not only to reductions in funding but to directives of a different kind. A properly conservative government would seek to lessen this vulnerability. If in some areas the Arts Council has exceeded its brief, then that brief should be redefined. It has also in some areas failed to perform its given role-as in the case of Little Sparta. It should be called to account there, too.

The precedents of one government are often followed by its successors. If a future government of whatever complexion perceives that the Arts Council has been 'politicized', it could become a simple, crude instrument of control. If, on the other hand, a rigorous and energetic Arts Council is visibly active in the field, interfering constructively not in the artistic policies of organizations but in the structures by which the arts are made available to people-improving and strengthening those structures-it will continue to develop, vulnerable only to its own success. Marx envisaged the withering away of the State in due course; similarly, the Arts Council could make the hypothetical garden so fertile by careful husbandry that, in the end, it might have no role to play. But that prospect is as remote, today, as is the prospect of a properly conservative government, upon which this cloud castle is erected.

This item is taken from PN Review 47, Volume 12 Number 3, January - February 1986.

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