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The big cuts: who will lose?
With Arts Council England poised to announce where the axe will fall, Rupert Christiansen says courage and quality should be rewarded.

Within Jeremy Hunt’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport, Ed Vaizey is the junior minister with special responsibility for the arts. Having watched him closely at functions and press conferences over recent months, I can tell that he is not a happy bunny.

We have had several incompetents in the job in recent memory, but I have never seen anyone who looks as bored, truculent and uneasy as he does. I guess he hates the job and that either he has lost all interest in the arts themselves and is sick of their acolytes shouting abuse at him, or else he doesn’t really believe in the regime of cuts he has been charged to execute.

Should this man have the power to decide which arts organisations receive grants from government? Should his drones at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (or by proxy in local authorities) be instructed to make the more detailed calculations as to who should get how much?

I know Arts Council England is disliked by most quango-bashing Conservatives – and a lot of the arts establishment as well – but I believe that the right answer to those questions is no, and that an Arts Council that keeps government at arm’s length from matters of artistic discrimination, remains the least bad option. I raise two cheers for its survival.

I hold the third cheer back because its performance has never been first-rate. Under New Labour, it spent an enormous amount of money on itself, and internally it hasn’t been tightly managed. Now, slimmed down to skin and bone by the cuts, it is providing much better value for money, and I think the Government’s demands for further reductions in its establishment are punitive and counter-productive.

The chairman, Liz Forgan, and chief executive, Alan Davey, are punching hard, and I hear good things on the ground about officers responsible for individual organisations – no longer “the computer says no” types concerned only with the ticking of boxes, but engaged and informed people with experience of the art form to which they are assigned.

They are faced with a ghastly prospect. Over the next four years, the DCMS’s grant to ACE will decline in stages by 29.6 per cent, from £449 million to £350 million. About 1,400 organisations have currently applied for three years of funding. In the recent past, about 850 have received awards; this year, the ACE reckons that only 750 will get through, and of those most will face a cut of about 15 per cent by 2014.

I believe, to put it very crudely, that under New Labour, the arts sector became over-heated, over-supplied and extravagant to the point where a brisk clear-out of 10 per cent of total activity wouldn’t do the culture much lasting harm.

But these figures, on top of local authority cuts, inflation and general belt-tightening, suggest that an overall drop of 20 per cent in income and provision is more like it. The ACE insists that it won’t deal out equal misery all round. Some organisations will get rises, some new clients will be added to the portfolio. It’s not a conflagration, but there’s certainly going to be a bonfire and the Big Society will have to spring smartly into action if local art galleries or theatres are to have a chance of prospering.

The ACE will publish its judgments at the end of March. The process of culling must be agonising, and I don’t suppose there will be positively good news for many. But I hope that success will be rewarded without fear or favour – and that means flagships such as the Royal Opera House and the National Theatre as well as brave new experiments in the regions.

The money must be fairly spread across centres of population, to ensure that everyone has reasonable annual access to some opera, ballet, theatre, classical music and contemporary art. But geographical factors alone shouldn’t weigh too heavily. Size of audiences is not a criterion: it’s assessment of quality that should be paramount, subjective though this may be.

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The Telegraph