The soft power if brutal Baz
When Peter Bazalgette was announced as the new chairman of the Arts Council four years ago, to say there was scepticism is to put it mildly. Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail wondered what a “brutal populist” like the man who brought us Big Brother had to offer the arts.
But his belief in the creative and his persuasive personality, along with the negotiating skills of colleagues like Althea Efunshile and Darren Henley, talked the Treasury and DCMS into a standstill government grant until 2020, and even got Osborne to say in the House of Commons that the arts was one of the best investments we could make.
But what he calls the game changer in arts funding has little to do with him, as he confesses. He was brought in by Jeremy Hunt as culture secretary supposedly because of his understanding of philanthropy, being a philanthropist himself and chairman, then, of ENO which leans heavily on it is board members to cough up. In fact philanthropy in the arts – “contributed income” in the newspeak – has gone up a mere couple of percentage points in the last five years of subsidy cuts from a low base, business sponsorship remains risibly low, yet the economic cake as he calls it has grown.
How? By the entrepreneurial inventiveness of a new breed of arts managers that has pushed commercial revenues up from £750m to £1.1b, more than 25% in the crux of austerity, dwindling national subsidy and disappearing local authority support.
And it's because audiences and visitors are being asked, personally, what they like, don’t like and want in a practical application of Baz’s buzzword, “empathy”, the thing that is essential to the arts but can connect audiences. He quotes the LIFT commission from the Empathy Museum last year, A Mile in My Shoes, in which people put on earphones to hear someone’s story, while walking in the subject’s own footwear. People found it transformative.
It wasn’t empathy that persuaded the government, of course, but hard cash. The figure of £84 billion, the annual contribution to the GDP the soft power creative industries make, and the fact that it is the fastest growing sector in the British economy is what did the real talking, with a powerful shove from the two-year-old Creative Industries Federation. And now May has named the sector as one of the five to get special government support in the industrial strategy she published this week.
The brutal populist moves on to chair ITV, but he’s not finished with the creative industries. This week the government has asked him to chair an independent review into the sector as part of its Brexit strategy and how it “can help underpin our future prosperity” after we leave the EU.