Tuesday, April 17, 2007

IN THE PAPERS - In The Times today, the Barbican chief John Tusa expresses his anger against 'ignorant bureaucrats and posturing barbarians'.

I’m sick to death of meddling philistines

Government arts policy is forged by ignorant bureaucrats and posturing barbarians, writes the furious Barbican chief John Tusa

I will put it simply and perhaps too directly. After more than a decade of direct involvement in the arts and the debate about them, there are many things of which I am sick to death. This is not just a spasm of impatience but represents my deep belief that if the attitudes behind the policies I describe did not exist, the arts would be better run, healthier, more effective, more varied and more enjoyable even than they are today. Does arts policymaking, in short, get in the way of creating the arts themselves?

In recent weeks there have been specific criticisms of government attitudes to the arts by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen’s Music, and Charles Saumarez Smith, the outgoing director of the National Gallery. “Max” said that the Government’s attitude was “utterly philistine”, while Saumarez Smith criticised the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, for being “completely deaf” to the importance of saving major works of art for the nation.

I am as — or even more — concerned with the way that arts policy has become so heavily bureaucratised. It should not be necessary for a senior civil servant to spend weeks trying to persuade the Treasury that an additional £22 million will prevent the museums and galleries from spiralling into deficit, as has happened recently. It is a waste of time because £22 million in a national budget of some £560 billion is ignored as the big numbers are added up. The sum of £22 million is just rounded off. It’s loose change.

This is not a special plea for a privileged place for the arts. It is a plea for the application of common sense. Let’s be clear. If the Treasury holds on to that £22 million, it will not make any difference to its room for manoeuvre on any major item of government policy — not health, not education, not welfare, not defence. If it gives it to the museums and galleries, it heads off a looming crisis. What does common sense suggest is the wiser course, the more effective approach? Time spent in meetings arguing over such numbers as if they were life or death issues has wasted hours of time, for arts directors as well as policymakers.

Mine is also a plea for a serious approach to funding the arts. As Tony Blair made clear in his Tate Modern speech on March 6, new Labour is very proud of funding free access to museums and galleries, transforming attendances and hugely increasing audiences for museums and galleries. But we also know that this came about not because of a reasoned belief in the policy, still less from conviction in the values of free admission, but because the Treasury found a significant lump of money lying loose shortly before the Budget was finalised.

Funding free admission was judged to make a good political headline. The arts deserve better than this, a serious debate about arts funding rather than this mix of opportunism, point-scoring and gameplaying.
I’m sick to death, too, with justifying the arts as if there was something specially problematical about doing so, as if funding the arts is irrational or even unnatural. Thinking about the arts, judging their value, explaining particular trends in the arts — this is an essential part of a human activity that takes itself seriously. What is a waste of time is being required to justify the arts as if millennia of arts activity required justifying anew, as if a failure to justify them could — or should — lead to the end of the activity altogether.
This demand for an incontrovertible justification for the arts goes hand in hand with the further cry: “Yes, these reasons are familiar enough, but you cannot demonstrate that they add up numerically or financially.” No one has ever funded the arts because they have convinced the sceptical about their essential utility. Making the demand is an act of posturing only. I am sick to death of senior policymakers having to spend time presenting the record of the arts in detail to Treasury officials and being asked, almost incredulously: “So you’re saying the arts are a success story?” I’m certainly sick to death of being asked by friendly lobbying groups, such as the National Campaign for the Arts — it’s not their fault — to give them real instances of the arts making a difference to people or their society so that they, too, can try to persuade the Treasury. The cost of producing these papers is real.

I do want the Treasury and all politicians to know what the arts achieve. There is plenty to suggest that the mountains of evidence produced through this process are of scant value in the final decision-making process. Is this a policy of attrition? Of obstruction? Of postpone-ment? Probably all three.

Come to that, why is the demand for justification of the arts so often accompanied by the implied slur that those in the arts are engaged in a selfish activity — which they want others to pay for — by representing them as some kind of personal indulgence, constituting a private play-thing? All the evidence points to widespread use made of the arts, the overwhelming support for their funding and the enjoyment that they bring. Why is so much overt public debate founded apparently on such wilfully false assumptions?

I’m sick to death, too, that the arts play such a small part in the activities of local authorities. There are statutory responsibilities on local authorities to provide key services such as education, housing and the police. There is no equivalent statutory responsibility to provide for the arts. Perhaps inevitably, when local authorities do produce a cultural strategy — and more and more of them feel obliged to do so — there is no mention of anything truly recognisable as arts provision. Can you be surprised when the very word “culture” in local authority speak has been debased to include swimming, walking and enjoying parks almost to the deliberate exclusion of the visual and performing arts.

Why are we so supine in not rebutting the accusation that the market’s provision of entertainment makes subsidy of the arts unnecessary and probably unjustifiable? Why do we not challenge the sneer that there are the popular arts and then — wait for it — the unpopular arts? Why are we so weak in ramming home the fact that public subsidy and private funding are partners in creating a broad spectrum, from the most esoteric to the most banal, that actually unites us in the world of arts and entertainment?

The market benefits hugely from the actors, directors, designers, playwrights, nurtured, trained and developed by the subsidised sector. Has anyone ever suggested that the private entertainment sector should pay the state a return on the fruits of this investment in talent and creativity from which it benefits so hugely?
Arguably, this binary approach — state-subsidised arts bad, privately funded arts good — is one of the most damaging and destructive aspects of the public arts debate. It is untrue, it obfuscates, it is intended to damage, and it distracts attention from the fact that however we are funded, basically we are all in the same business.

Arts policymakers judge the education and outreach programme of a major arts institution not by whether it is of high quality and raises the creative awareness of the children it is aimed at, but only whether it is directed at socially targeted groups such as refugees or the socially marginalised.

Valuable as such activity may be, it is far from clear why an education programme dedicated to developing creative understanding in the broadest sense should be limited and defined in this way. Such may well be the priorities of social welfare departments. Why are they the priorities of arts policy-makers? The only possible answer can be that the arts policymakers themselves do not believe in the value of excellence of the arts as such and on their own.

Why do we allow the language of the arts to be bogged down in the impenetrable cant of social science? Why must every document be laden with words and phrases such as “pathways”, “entry points”, “direction of travel” and dozens of such like. If the language is vague, obscure, woolly, impenetrable, then the ideas lurking behind it will be equally vague and woolly.

The principle that those who spend publicly given money should be open about how they spend it is unquestionable. But the manner in which accountability is operated is crucial. Too often the cry of “accountability” is used as a none-too-transparent cloak for interference. The proliferating forms in which accountability is demanded only get in the way of the creation of the arts for which the money is given in the first place. This is not an accident, a byproduct of a bureaucratic tic for tidiness. It is usually a deliberate — and nontransparent — way of exerting control that would not be tolerated in other circumstances.
These attitudes get in the way, they make life more difficult for the artists, the real creators. They do not — to use a management cant phrase — “add value”.

What I love about the best arts organisations that help artists to flourish is the energy and curiosity with which ideas are turned into art. The best of these organisations are alert, intense, questing, dynamic and effective.

What value do the policymakers and their myriad questions truly add to the hard work of creating the new? Incoming governments have often trumpeted a policy of a “bonfire of regulations”. Perhaps a true coda to Tony Blair’s speech at Tate Modern would be for him to free the arts from so many of the supervisory bodies that restrict activity rather than freeing it. Or perhaps the new Gordon Brown Government can ask arts bureaucrats to really justify what they contribute to the health of the arts in the United Kingdom?
Sir John Tusa is the managing director of the Barbican Centre.

From The Times

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