The Trials & Tribulations of the Arts Council: The Case for a New Programme of Socialism
By Joe Langabeer & Enya Menichini, Co-Founders of Art-Rising
The Arts Council is a subsidy package for arts venues. It provides the money to all types of artistic ventures and does that by adhering to the so-called “arms-length.” As a result, it cannot be biased towards those it decides to fund. Yet, the Arts Council has had difficulty in respecting this policy. In the 1980s the board of the Arts Council was funding predominantly commercially lucrative arts ventures and changed their economic language to satisfy the neo-liberal ideological agenda of Thatcherism. The Arts Council has not proved itself to be resistant to the manifestation of late capitalism but has in fact appeased it. In doing so, it has facilitated a breeding ground for economically driven enterprises and over-production of commercialised theatre, which then has started dominating the artistic scene. Capitalism has rooted within the Arts Council, and it is only a matter of time before it will get away with choosing propaganda pieces to fund and promote. In 2016, Sir Nicholas Serota became the chairman of the Arts Council, appointed by the DCMS and the UK Tory-led government. Serota had previously run the Tate collective, where he gained an infamous reputation for bringing in the damaging deal with BP that tarnished Tate' status as an independent collective of galleries and exhibitions. This is definitely not the worst chairman that the Tories have appointed, but his appointment fundamentally makes apparent that they were looking for a vibrant capitalist instigator with the ability to collude with these ethically questionable companies to form “sponsorships” and promote capitalism in the arts. In 2019, the Arts Council announced that it would focus on “relevance” rather than “excellence” in their litmus testing for funding, not understanding that art makes relevance, not the other way around. In this article, we will examine the history of the Arts Council, including its promises and pitfalls. The strategy put in place for the upcoming decade, 2020-2030, will be examined and counteracted with an alternative solution that involves an independent, state-owned Arts Council which would run the theatres in the interest of the people, and not for profit.
The Arts Council charter was first developed in 1946 by John Maynard Keynes. Before that, theatre started being reorganised in 1879 by culture critic Matthew Arnold whose aim was creating a subsidized enterprise and a state-funded national theatre. Keynes developed the theory of Keynesian economics, still widely debated by socialists in the 21st Century as it questions the ideas of reformism and revolution. Keynes was not a critic of capitalism per se but was critical of how it treated society. This is fundamentally flawed, and the example of the Arts Council is evident proof as to why. Shortly before the release of the charter, Keynes died unexpectedly. Rather than a Keynesian model of funding system within the arts, the Arts Council proceeded then in becoming a preservation society for ancient relics of art. Change came several years later in 1967, when Jennie Lee, a Labour Party MP, was appointed as the first Arts Minister. I have already written before about the importance of the Labour Party and the arts, but it is important here to stress that it was Jennie Lee who made the big leap towards the renewal of the Arts council charter in 1967. The renewed Arts Council embraced both the legacy of John Maynard Keynes and Matthew Arnold, promoting the idea that art should be enjoyed by anyone and everyone regardless of class or background. The idea behind the rejuvenation of the Arts Council was to give funding to arts organizations, by investing in return into the national economy. It was then that the “arms-length” funding policy was introduced. An important issue, however, that arises with subsidies is the eventual rise of inflation which leads to capitalism dictating the terms of a subsidized economy. As documented in the book Bringing Down The House: The Crisis In Britain’s Regional Theatres, arts organizations fought with financial difficulties in the 1970s, and regional theatres, in particular, were at this stage debating with the Arts Council in regards of accessibility and affordability, as well as other dynamics. By keeping the “arms-length,” funding was not being managed by the central government, and this caused the Arts Council to struggle and be left in a precarious condition, which facilitated the attack from Thatcherism when the came to be. Keynesian economics is based on subsidies, and whilst it provides good and immediate short-term solutions it does not offer a suitable long-term solution as the integration of capitalist ventures eventually damages the subsidized venues. With that being said, in the 1970s arts organisations were at their height of political discussion and debate, and created a wide variety of arts and entertainment that was made freely available.
Thatcher promoted William Rees-Mogg in 1979 to be the chairman of the Arts Council. He was the reason why the Arts Council halved its funding, leading to the crisis that regional and off west-end theatres still suffer today. Thatcher's austerity did not help the Arts Council either, as it was highly damaging for the arts as reported in Austerity and the Public role of Drama. Instead of criticizing the government’s budget cuts for the arts in the 1980s, the Arts Council published a document called Glory of the Garden which focused on regional theatres' predicament, whilst not offering a solution to the problem. The continuous cutting of the Arts Council’s funding led to theatre closures and troubling times for regional theatres. Commercialized theatre in the West-End had a boost, however, with the free-market expansion of the economy under Thatcherism and the globalization effect of Cameron Mackintosh’s “Mega-Musicals.” The ‘Mctheatre’ franchising of the arts had begun, as well termed in Globalization and Theatre. The entrepreneur has continued to succeed and has hardly offered any help to the industry during the Covid-19 crisis, deciding instead to sack over 800 of his workers. We will go into further details on the ‘egotistical entrepreneur’ in a later article. John Major’s government in the early ’90s did not help shift the tide: the offering of the National Lottery proved to be a ruse that deepened the ever-growing economic crisis facing the arts, and subsequently, the Arts Council. New Labour stepped in and developed their own department called the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Tony Blair affirmed that the arts were entering a “golden age”, echoing the statement released by Harold Wilson’s government in 1964 in regards to their treatment of the arts. However, Blair's claim bore no such significance to the funding and eventually led to a superficial approach that neither helped nor hindered the artistic landscape. Austerity damaged the Arts Council and cut 33% of its funding, leaving it with the bare minimum.
The Arts Council has been ineffective in calling these problems out, merely siding with the government on various decisions regarding its future. In its report Developing a new strategy for the Arts: 2020-2030, the Arts Council has introduced the idea of “relevance” as a determining factor during the selection process for funding. That means that art must now be relevant in accordance with its monetary needs. Most people saw this as appeasement towards work on identity politics. It is not about the relevance of the arts in the affirmation towards identity politics, but the constraints of the status quo of capitalism.
“Arts Council England, and the organisations we work with, will recognise, value, and invest in the culture and creativity that are part of people’s everyday lives.”
It is and has been since the years of late capitalist ideology the investment of “value”: not of relevance, but a popular form of economic exploitation. This becomes particularly predominant as identity politics in the arts is highly popular, as it should be. Dangerous is now the fact that the arts council has become a pawn used by capitalism to keep privatizing public institutions. It must be argued with and it must be overthrown. That is why we offer a solution: The Arts Council must become a nationalized body with the state-ownership of all artistic venues within the country. That solves the Keynesian economic crisis, the horrendous exploitation of workers, and the dastardly destruction of the arts by the hand of capitalism that has contributed to the disastrous crisis during the Covid-19 pandemic. For this to become a reality, a nation-wide programme of artistic state-ownership must be promoted iso that the arts can survive, and eventually thrive. There must be no more political influence of the hegemony acting as a chairman and calling for the political thrust of the Arts Council economy. Instead, a real policy of “arms-length” must be developed, where no political influence is able to produce its own propaganda. No government officials controlling the value of the arts within the Arts Council, but instead a completely independent state-owned entity that runs of a nationalized program in which the arts are free and accessible to all.
The state of culture is in the hands of the working class. It should belong to them.