PASSING BY… The Nick of time
With the appointment of Sir Nicholas Serota as the next chair of the Arts Council, Antony Thorncroft reflects on some of his predecessors
The news that Sir Nicholas Serota is to be the new chairman of the Arts Council brought the memories flooding back. It is hard to believe it now but at one stage in my career the Arts Council was the centre of my universe. I, and a small group of arts writers on the national newspapers, took its activities very seriously. At one time we would troupe along after every council meet- ing for a briefing and get worked up about changes in the personnel in the dance department or the travails of some small south western drama group. I was often amazed that my FT colleagues had scarcely heard of the Council and took no interest in its activities. How right they were.
Looking back, the council in those days seems to have been over staffed and under employed. Once a year it handed over the cash it received from the government to a host of regional arts boards who in their turn passed it on to their clients. I suppose for the next 12 months the staff, both national and regional, ensured that some of this subsidy was well spent.
Despite the odd scare story, every year the council was given roughly the same sum which was then scattered among hundreds of arts companies. The Arts Council occasionally threatened dramatic change – axing a London orchestra for example – but little happened. A particularly hope- less arts group might lose its funding while others had their support marginally raised or lowered to provide cash for new dependents to join the long and rather flavourless gravy train. At that time museums were funded directly by the Government or the Museums Commission, and lottery cash did not exist. We were writing about very little and that little was ruthlessly cut by savvy news editors.
There was the occasional flurry of excitement, usually caused by the appointment of a new chairman. I am sure that Lady Thatcher had no time for the Council and chose Sir William Rees Mogg to sort it out. He at- tempted a shake up but Sir Peter Hall led a successful revolt by the arties, threatening to resign as director of the National Theatre, and little changed. Later Sir Gerry Robinson, a successful no nonsense businessman, was the surprise appointment as chairman and he did manage to cut bureaucracy by eliminating the regional arts boards and taking control back to London.
At this time there was no Department of Culture, Media and Sport but when it arrived there was talk of abolishing the council and letting the department rule. But in its turn the council saw off the threat with the reasonable argument that you did not want politicians getting too close to directly funding the arts. The council also managed to shrug off criticisms that it had wasted money subsiding films that never found a distributor and letting the development budgets of the Royal Opera House and the Lowry at Salford soar way above budget. I think its fairly trouble-free existence can be explained by the fact that the arts do not matter much in the highest echelons of government circles and that the sums involved were small; let sleeping dogs with loud barks lie.
Most chairmen were vaguely political appointments, and some – Lord Gowrie, Sir Christopher Frayling – had a great interest in the arts, but whatever their background they seemed to be seduced by the Arts Council ethos. Some courted the media – we had very pleasant Christmas lunches at the expense of Peter Palumbo – while others – former journalist Rees Mogg – remained distant. They were basically the figureheads of a very English compromise, an institution which kept a vociferous but tiny sec- tor of the community (artists of every stamp) relatively docile while not up- setting a larger sector (the public led by the redtop media) which regarded subsidy for the arts as a waste of money. Perhaps keeping a low profile and not making many reforms was the right approach.
Could this be about to change? Sir Nicholas Serota has devoted his many years running the Tate to innovation, what with the creation of the hugely successful Tate Modern and the out stations at St Ives and Liver- pool, while acting as the magnet for the explosion of interest in modern, indeed contemporary, art. He is a man of great energy and deep convictions with considerable contacts. I can’t imagine that he intends that presumably his last role in the arts world will be as a figurehead. An agenda must have- been agreed on.
He is the perfect impressive appointment, not least because he has managed to raise the international reputation of the Tate’s cluster of galleries to a much higher level than the contents deserve. This is particularly true of Tate Modern which owes so much of its popularity to its building and location. The art inside cannot start to compare with the Museum of Modern Art in New York and since its opening 15 years ago it has not man- aged to acquire any outstanding additional masterpieces.
Serota has achieved much, notably the creation of the regional museums and his ability to raise money for the construction of Tate Modern which has enabled Tate Britain to show more of its excellent collection of national art. Even if it still keeps hidden many of its finest paintings, especially of 20th century art.
At last the Arts Council has a real mover and shaker at the helm. In the past it hardly covered itself with glory in its promotion of the visual arts and this will surely change. But with England’s arts venues having enjoyed a tremendous building boost in recent decades without an equal improvement in the standard of performances Sir Nicholas has a wonderful opportunity to match place and product. He also arrives at a time of change at the top among some of his biggest clients, most notably at the Victoria & Albert, the British Museum, and the Royal Opera House, and indeed the Tate. Any journalist writing about the arts world in the near future will have a much more exciting time of it than in my day.