The Arts Council, 70 today, has no further raison d’etre

The Arts Council, 70 today, has no further raison d’etre


norman lebrecht

August 09, 2016

The great vision of John Maynard Keynes in August 1946 was for an arts council that would water grass roots up and down the land ‘with modest funds … to stimulate, comfort and support’ artistic activity. The AC was to be independent of Government, protected by ‘an arm’s length’ from political influence.

That’s how it was meant to be, and that’s how it began. The largest grant in 1946 was £25,000 to Covent Garden, around £1 million in 2016 spending terms. The first orchestra to receive subsidy was given £2,000. Modest, and sufficient for the times.

What we have today is a behemoth, bossed around by the Department of Culture and whichever party is in power, bleating in tune with every political correctness, spending around £20 to £25 million on big clients like Covent Garden and the South Bank and offering little in the way of ‘comfort and support’. Only more forms to fill in.

Its chair is a Big Brother television baron. Its chief executive tweets his policies from up and down the land.

The Arts Council has just given £5.3 million in ‘Elevate grants’ to 40 organisations with a view to help them ‘improve diversity’. No-one mentions improving art.

Keynes would not recognise today’s Arts Council. Nor would he think much of it. The organisation is far too large and far too subservient to Whitehall. It has become so irrelevant that no public media have noticed its significant anniversary.

It is beyond redemption in both the structural and ideological sense. The German method works better for the arts. So does the French.

We need to take the best advice from Europe, and start again.

john maynard keynes

That’s what Keynes would have done.


  • Olassus says:


  • Paul Kelly says:

    The Arts Council has always been 70 years old.

  • Elizabeth owen says:

    It’s the DCMS that should be got rid of. The arts need/deserve to be administered by professionals not civil servants who know nothing and yes I do have experience.

  • Gijs Elsen says:

    The trouble is that the “excellence” argument has become irrelevant and completely overshadowed by strategic political objectives. Even though excellence sits at the top of ACE’s 5 Strategic Goals, in reality it is the one goal that matters least when funding decisions are made. Excellence will always lose out to social engineering objectives; inclusion, education, diversity, community, access. These are worthy ambitions in themselves but ACE uses Art merely as a tool to achieve them. The Art itself is never the object of the exercise.
    Perhaps the Arts Council shouldn’t be called Arts Council but the Council for Social Inclusiveness through creative endeavour (or something that rolls off the tongue a little more easily ..)
    The title “Arts Council” should then be reserved for a new body that actually helps fund Arts organisations who focus on trying to be as good as they possibly can. These ensembles, orchestras, theatre- and dance groups that represent Britain around the world as true ambassadors of what the Arts sector in Great Britain has to offer; which is a great deal! In a post-Brexit world, Britain could do with that little bit of international goodwill.

  • James MacMillan says:

    Ah, but up here we have Creative Scotland….

  • John Borstlap says:

    Every morning, the porter of the Ministery of Culture in Paris climbs the stairs, opens the window and screws the national flag into its fitting on the façade, after which he descends the steps with the satisfying feeling that he has again contributed to the glory of La Grande Nation. We may be amused by the chauvinism of the French, but culture has an organic place within the French political structure, as initiated by Louis XIV, with the consequence that much money is invested in national cultural identity through extensive funding of the cultural institutions. Of course, such top-down directionist structure invites for affluent intrigue, scheming, infighting, etc. etc. but at least, the existience of the institutions is more or less garanteed. This direct subsidizing cultural institutions so that their existence and functioning is financially secure, is the only way to keep culture going.

  • Saxon Broken says:

    Norman writes: “The German method works better for the arts. So does the French.”

    So what method do they have, and why do you think their method is better?

    • John Borstlap says:

      As far as I have understood – and which is what Norman probably means – in France and Germany, the cultural institutions (theatres, concert halls, orchestras, opera houses, ensembles, museums etc.) are directly funded by the state, either by the ministery of culture or the municipalities of the cities or the privinces / Länder. This means that culture is part of the political structure with the accompanying responsibilities and know-how. If, for instance, in Germany a theatre gets into trouble for whatever reason, the responsible politician can loose his/her job over it. The British Arts Council is an independent body without such political affiliations. I think the difference is the result that in Britain ‘the arts’ are considered a private matter, as in the USA, and not a resonsibility of the whole of the community through the state. One of the reasons that the UK is closer to the USA than to the (rest of) Europe. If they had not kicked-out the Romans and let Napoleon take-over the islands for a while, long enough to install continental laws, culture in Britain would have been better funded. But well, the price would have been a bit too drastic.