Arts Council – time for action

A submission to the House of Commons’ Select Committee for Culture concerning their short enquiry into the commissioning criteria used by the Arts Council of England.

From the editor of The Jackdaw

Your interest in the artistic criteria underpinning ACE’s funding decisions is a subject which has long exercised me. I wish to demonstrate here that where they are not clouded in the secrecy of woolly definitions, the artistic criteria used by ACE in the visual arts are partial and excluding of most artists in Britain whose interests the Council should be representing.

During the 35 years I have been writing about art, the last 20 spent editing two magazines, Art Review and The Jackdaw, I have watched the Arts Council become an oppressive dictatorship of narrow taste. No other phrase adequately describes the stranglehold they exercise over the visual arts.

The Council does not respond objectively to what is being made by artists. Far from it. Instead, it prescribes the kind of work it wishes to support. This partiality has been allowed to develop because politicians hide behind the ‘arms–length principle’ by which they distance themselves from artistic decision making. ACE has used this convenient indifference to promote its beliefs unhindered. It is long overdue that this ‘arm’ was cut off.

So entrenched has this system now become that if you were devising a means of dispensing public money to visual arts you would look at the way we do it today as a demonstration of what to avoid. The Arts Council has encouraged an unhealthy ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality.

In a perfect world a body spending enormous sums of public cash would at least attempt to make a show of even-handedness. It would recognise the diversity of excellence existing in visual art styles across the whole of the fine art spectrum; that is, from those at the more traditional end to the innovators at the other. Both ends, and all those markers in between, have their place in a healthy system appealing to audiences of different expectations and with different tastes.

For a generation after its foundation in 1946, the Arts Council did precisely this. It recognised the full range of possible styles. But not any longer. Now it is willing to support only what it calls in its literature “challenging” or “cutting edge” work.  In a booklet published five years ago, supposedly to define its objectives in visual art, it used the word “challenging” over 50 times in 80 pages but failed to say precisely what “challenging” actually means when they use it. In my view they leave it sufficiently vague so they might conveniently make it up as they go along.

By experience we know that “challenging” to them means the kind of work loosely dubbed ‘Conceptual’. This means the type of art which, since 1984, is nominated for the Turner Prize. What we get from the Arts Council through its gallery network is the visual equivalent of being fed porridge for every meal. You only have to examine the programmes of the nine major art galleries in London funded by the Council to see the truth of this policy in operation. Only very rarely do they show anything else but conceptual work. This is the reason why so many artists whose efforts are not deemed sufficiently “challenging” feel that the Arts Council does not represent them; indeed, I know from received correspondence that many feel it has failed them utterly.

The ACE in its visual arts policy has become an Academy representing what it claims is the avant-garde. And like all orthodoxies it is intolerant of anything else.

A topical example of their policy in practice is the case of First Sight, a £40 million art centre opened two years ago in Colchester. It is revenue-funded by the Arts Council. Attendance at the gallery dropped dramatically in the last year because the programme of work that the Arts Council makes contingent on their continued funding is limited to what most locals do not want to see all the time – correspondence columns in local newspapers are clear on this. As far as I can recall, for the first time in the history of an ACE funded gallery, the director of First Sight has admitted that as far as the exhibition programme is concerned his hands are tied. If he varies the diet to include what some locals might wish to see the Arts Council will discontinue support. Such autocratic behaviour is threatening the very survival of the gallery. First Sight is beginning to smell like a re-run of The Public in West Bromwich, that ghastly Arts Council mistake which closed recently having swallowed close on £50 million. It seems that the Arts Council never learns.

Not only is the ACE selection criterion dictatorial it is also unnecessarily duplicating. I draw your attention to the current exhibition of work by the Chapman Brothers at the Serpentine Gallery, which is funded by the Arts Council. These artists, who are among the more original in the conceptual fold, have shown recently in many public art galleries, from the Tate to the British Museum. The brothers are represented by a commercial dealer, White Cube, which is among the wealthiest contemporary art businesses in the world; indeed, they run two large galleries in London. Why is it necessary to show the work of these artists in a publicly funded space when they are already widely exhibited and their own dealer has larger nearby premises of its own than the Serpentine can offer? When so many other artists go unexhibited this obsession with the same few names is indefensible.

The process by which public galleries promote and further endorse a few successful brand names is one which should be investigated at the earliest opportunity. It stinks.

As stated above, in the distant past ACE galleries staged mixed programmes in which innovation found its place alongside historical surveys and retrospectives of artists of all descriptions and ages. This is no longer the case. ACE has inflicted upon us a virtual tyranny of youth and has ensured that the generations of British artists over 50 have been betrayed and abandoned by the Council.

I wish you to consider the following:

1. No publicly funded body should ever be allowed to state, as has the Arts Council, that there are “the wrong kinds of artists” and, therefore, by implication “the right kind”. This is an insult. Yes there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ artists but there are no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ones.

2. A publicly funded Arts Council should not be a blunt instrument for promoting brand name stars represented by a handful of wealthy commercial dealerships.

3. ACE should not be allowed to blackmail or dictate selection policy to galleries they help support. Directors should be free to show whatever they deem worthy in order to attract diverse audiences to their venues. Indeed, directors should be encouraged to surprise us by showing the rich wealth of work being produced in the country, as well as in their locality. The prevailing attitude, adopted by the Council, that ‘You will have to like what we give you’ must stop.

4. The programmes of ACE galleries should reflect the diversity of what is being produced by artists and equally encourage proposals from outsiders for historical exhibitions and retrospectives and surveys of older British artists.

David Lee