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This item is taken from PN Review 112, Volume 23 Number 2, November - December 1996.

Surprisingly, not much noise was made about the fiftieth anniversary of the Arts Council's first Royal Charter. It was marked by an Arts Council of England (there is no longer an Arts Council of Great Britain) exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall at the House of Commons. The Rt Hon Virginia Bottomley, introduced by Lord Gowrie, opened the exhibition, after which Sir Patrick Cormack and Andrew Faulds, Joint-Chairmen of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts and Heritage, hosted a reception in the Jubilee Room.

The exhibition drew attention to what public subsidy has done, illustrated popular demand for the arts and the benefits to the economy and the community of investing in the arts. The recent impact of the National Lottery was also demonstrated. The National Heritage Select Committee's contention that the Arts Council's revenue grant should be increased, or at least maintained at current levels, was reinforced. Forty-three MPs signed an Early Day Motion congratulating the Arts Council and supporting the Select Committee's recommendation.

Forty-three MPs constitute less than ten percent of the House. One might have expected more universal support for a body which, however contentious some of its decisions are, has been instrumental in encouraging the arts in all areas and has broadened its definitions and its remits as the years have passed.

Literature has always been the poor relation when it comes to resource allocation. Yet for anyone interested in poetry, the impact of Arts Council funding has been enormous. Without it the Poetry Book Society, the Poetry Library on the South Bank (housed initially at the Arts Council itself), programmes of events, publishing, translation and education, would not exist. In some quarters there is still hostility to the idea of public subsidy for literature, but that hostility, rooted in the nineteenth-century notions of private patronage, dislike of the Arts Council client list, or faith in the qualitative guarantees of the literary marketplace, is unserious about poetry itself. The relatively broad base of our poetry provision depends largely on the Arts Council and the regional arts boards; that provision is made without 'artistic strings', requiring as any public funding body must do only proper financial accountability from clients. Judgements are made, suggestions offered and programmes reviewed, but the 'arm's length' principle survives intact in a body painfully aware that it serves the most sour and critical of artistic constituencies and that each decision it makes will displease at least as many people as it pleases. This is not the vulnerable and unstable National Endowment for the Arts which has been such a political hot potato in the United States. The Arts Council may suffer from political correctnesses of various kinds, but it has remained impregnable to political subordination.

It is worth celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of an institution on the face of it so at odds with prevailing ideologies, so responsive to the complex nature of the art it affects. Although the literary budget is small in relation to the other arts, it is hard to see how it could be more usefully invested than it has been. There will always be sins of omission, yet when the last trumpet sounds (and it might sound at any time given current fiscal priorities), the case for public subsidy of literature will have been amply proven.

Why have the media made so little of the anniversary? Why was the Early Day Commons Motion so ill subscribed? The arts are - in terms of the government ecology - an 'endangered cost-centre'. The Arts Council itself may have decided that a low profile was appropriate at this point in the century, when the treasury is teeming with trimmers and the tabloid press greets each Lottery decision with derision. But those engaged in the arts as creators, performers and audiences might have preferred a more emphatic hurrah. Here is a distinctly British institution which has evolved a transparent structure of accountability and is a crucial part of a straitened artistic environment, working as it were against the laissezfaire tide of the day. Applause for the Arts Council and the regional arts boards as impartial patrons in a market-driven age ought to be loud and clear, and it should come not only from clients such as PN Review but from people (readers and writers) and institutions - from schools and newspapers to the Commons itself - that benefit. Though the Arts Council and its apologists have slipped into using the language of business, speaking of the Arts Industry and enumerating the economic benefits - tourism, exports, employment etc - that follow from the arts, the justification for the Arts Council and regional arts boards is precisely the opposite: that they keep the arts from becoming an industry and give them the margin of freedom within which creativity and innovation not answerable solely to market forces can survive.

This item is taken from PN Review 112, Volume 23 Number 2, November - December 1996.

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