The snowman cometh

The snowman cometh


norman lebrecht

October 28, 2009

Attempts by Liz Forgan, chair of Arts Council England, to defend her veto of the Mayor of London’s candidate are sounding more plaintive than her usual robust self. In a letter printed yesterday in the Guardian, whose ownership Trust she chairs, Dame Liz bleated that she was trying protect the ACE from political interference and to promote the cause of candidates who are more qualified than the Mayor’s.

Hmmm… let’s examine those two points. The ACE is yoked by the present government to a Department of Culture that controls all major decisons. The appointment of Liz as chair was a token of her Labour credentials. There is nothing non-political about the ACE any more.

And who are the other candidates she prefers? Tim Marlow is an art curator and presenter with no experience of the performing arts where the ACE spends its buggest bucks. Patrick McKenna is founder of Ingenious, an arts and media investment company whose involvement in the public-funded ACE would raise serious questions of conflict.

And then there is Nicholas Snowman, a former Arts Council official who ran London’s South Bank Centre for 12 years, turning into the biggest guzzler of public funds with the least to show for its spend. Nicholas and I go back a long way and I would be the last to deny his many merits as an arts administrator. London, however, is his weakest link and the Arts Council his Achilles Heel. He would have made an appalling appointment, exposing both himself and the ACE to accusations of being an insider’s club.

None of these considrations crossed the mind of Dame Liz when, in a burst of political bile, she vetoed Veronica Wadley as the ACE’s member for London. Veronica, my erstwhile editor and close associate, has no history in the arts. What she offers is a blazing commitment, demonstrated by doubling the arts coverage in her newspaper and campaigning for every arts cause. More than any other editor in my time, she made the arts central to editorial policy.

She would have brought – and will eventually bring – great initiative and fresh ideas to her public role. It’s a pity Dame Liz could not see that. It cheapens her greatly and fatally weakens the ACE. 


  • Bob Low says:

    Spot on, Norman. It’s strange how Lefties like Liz Forgan regard themselves as politically impartial when they are ruthless implementers of government policy and social engineering, while conservatives must be blocked, insulted and harassed at every turn. They just don’t get it.
    Let’s hope there’s a clean-out of the Augean stables next year, starting with Dame Liz Forgan.

  • Kit says:

    I agree with you that it makes little sense to challenge this appointment on the basis of political interference alone.
    However, setting aside the question of whether or not Snowman is the right man for the job, I would be curious to hear why you feel his reign at the South Bank Center “has the least to show for its spend.”
    I lived in London in the late 80s and early 90s, then returned in 2005 to find the South Bank transformed from an over-earnest and rather gloomy collection of “one-stop” destinations to an energetic maze of artistic wonders that had finally opened itself up to the life of the riverbank and made it vibrant. Are you telling us that this monumental turnaround must all be attributed to the work done from 2000-2005?
    Curious in NYC
    Dear Curious
    Snowman was in charge 1986-98. The transformation was directed by his two successors … and all three of them kept overspending in a style that would have been permitted to no other UK arts institution. The South Bank was, and remains, a byword for poor financial controls.

  • Major Tom in Toronto says:

    or…. as Joe Biden would say, the Agean stables.

  • Kit says:

    Hi Norman,
    Thanks for your response.
    I’m still in the dark as to a) how exactly its management succeeded in transforming the South Bank, b) Snowman’s part in that, and c) how much of that monumental task – which surely can’t have taken only 5 years to achieve – might have involved poor financial controls (I thought “The House” had become the ultimate byword in that respect). Meltdown, the London Sinfonietta’s themed weekends, transforming the QEH into a multi-purpose venue (for Dance Umbrella and others), Live Art festivals that brought previously dormant spaces into the mix, the welcome mat being put out for the skateboarders – all this was introduced under Snowman, no?
    In the meantime, the stakes get higher…

  • Tom says:

    So the answer to political interference by their lot is political interference by your lot? Forgive me for a cynical BWAHAHAHA. I’d once hoped that the Conservatives wouldn’t stoop to this kind of destructive Kulturkampf that serves no one’s interest, but since someone managed to get Boris to appoint the awful scheming incompetent Munira Mirza, I’m forced to conclude that we’ll get more Kampf than Kunst in the future, to the detriment of the city.
    If Snowman has actually ruined a major arts centre (which I don’t accept), he’s still better qualified than Wadley, who merely ruined a major newspaper by allowing it to become a mouthpiece for propaganda, smears, appalling journalistic standards and fake tabloid outrage. The punters voted with their feet, What’s the merit in having twice the arts coverage if you have fewer than half the readers?
    Since losing her job there she has, instead of, say, seeking to bolster her CV with some actual arts experience, issued bitter self-justifiying whining recriminations against her successor, then seemingly got in touch with an old friend who happened to have benefitted electorally from her editorship and asked him for a job. That’s hardly a bright new dawn in accountability, is it?
    NL replies: I admire your rage, unfocussed as it is. I have no poltical ‘lot’. VW did not contact Boris for a job, nor did she halve the readership of the ES – her successors managed that in just nine months. The circulation – a point of fact, which may not affect the generality of your rage – was 420,000 when she became editor in 2002 and around 340,000 when the two free papers came on stream to attack its market. That’s a slower rate of decline over the period than other newspapers – including the Guardian.