There’s going to be a good deal of breath-holding at the Arts Council as it waits for the Autumn Statement next month, and what it will say about this peculiar government’s approach to the arts. The glow from last year’s, and the last Budget’s, successes has hardly worn off with the sound of the Chancellor declaring that arts cuts were a false economy still ringing. But that was the old Chancellor.
Last night ACE’s deputy CEO Althea Efunshile had her farewell party at the South Bank Centre and the affection she has engendered in her colleagues was encapsulated by a characteristically funny and fond speech by the chairman Peter Bazalgette, as was her response. They were a good team. By all accounts, the winning over of the DCMS and Treasury in the Spending Review negotiations was a pincer movement between them, Baz dealing with the politicians and Althea deploying a massive charm offensive on the civil servants – there was a contingent of them raising a glass last night, though only one politician was present and that was “our lovely Ed”, Ed Vaizey (curious how the weekly message from DCMS still comes from “Ed Vaizey’s Culture and Creative Industries Team” three months after he was fired). She went to see them (not common practice), wooed them, took them to the theatre and to concerts, organised regional visits for them. She convinced them.
But it’s all change now. Althea has gone, Baz is going. Cameron, Lovely Ed and George Osborne’s team have gone, so has the unlamented culture secretary John Whittingdale. In come Mrs May, Karen Bradley and Mike Hancock, but more significantly Philip Hammond and his acolytes. In comes Nick Serota for Baz, and for Althea – no-one. Her post retires with her and chief executive Darren Henley is moving people up to new jobs like chief operating officer and executive director, enterprise, but who takes on the missionary role with the job of educating the Whitehall natives is not clear.
That there were so many Bernards there last night is a tribute to the seeds Althea has sown, and perhaps they will continue to bear fruit. But the roots need to be nourished, and Whitehall civil servants oscillate around the Westminster meadow almost as much as politicians. Althea was direct and could also be tough when necessary – one remark last night that she knew where the bodies were got the response “Yes, because she buried most of them” – which made her unequivocating but warm approach all the more effective. She will be much missed, but in the best possible way we can only hope she is not a one-off.