Editorial – January 2017

Has The Arts Council Betrayed Its Origins?

Serota takes over at the Arts Council this month, 47 years after first being employed by the same body as a regional arts officer in what was his first job after university. In the interval the Council has developed into a blunt instrument by which State Art, an ethos it co-authored with Serota during his 27-year dictatorship at the Tate, has been forcibly imposed throughout the contemporary art field. Assisted by less important bodies (including a number of charities who ought to know better), half a dozen influential dealers and a legion of devoted apostles and brand-obsessed superrich collectors, the Arts Council and Serota’s Tate evolved a common purpose. It now feels almost pre-ordained that these Yin and Yangs of a disreputable system should be united under the President-For-Life to inflict

upon us more of the same.

By concisely rehearsing the Arts Council’s genesis I want to examine how a body, which didn’t start life with an exclusively extremist agenda, became the principal funding agent for what they themselves call a ‘challenging’, ‘innovative’ art; an art from which hardly anyone else but those professionally involved in it benefits, and in which the wider public – who pay for it – express no interest save indifference or derision.

So what happened to produce the monster we have today, with its Westminster HQ, exaggerated sense of entitlement, uniforms, swanky websites, overmanning, pretentious drivel, gender and ethnic obsessions, and self-promoting literature concerned only with the decaying rump of the avant garde?

The Arts Council (I’ll persist with this name though it has changed regularly) evolved out of the Committee (later Council) for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts formed in December 1939. The first general Treasury grant ever for the arts, £25,000, was offered in April 1940 for classical music, drama and art. This matched £25,000 given

by The Pilgrim Trust for touring concerts and exhibitions, seven-eighths of the money going on music. Government subsidy was increased to £85,000 in 1942 when the Pilgrim Trust pulled out and when opera and ballet were added to the roll-call of recipients; it was £175,000 a year by the war’s end.

Before CEMA was established arguments had reverberated for 20 years as to whether art should be publicly

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funded. A more compelling case for subsidy arrived with the war. The first awards were considered shrewd commercial investments by Exchequer mandarins. For the tiny sums cited above the morale boosting potential of art and music (especially sing-songs) for an undernourished and overworked civilian population of mainly women was considered more than compensation. The impact


of these touring plays, concerts and exhibitions was so overwhelming, the public reaction so vocally grateful, that the continuation of Government support in peace time seemed a no-brainer. Additionally, throughout the war, and especially from 1942 when he took over CEMA, Maynard Keynes lobbied tirelessly for the post-war continuation of subsidy.

And things undoubtedly had to change. As William Coldstream explained in the mid-’30s, artists didn’t expect to sell work except occasionally to their friends or, if they were lucky enough to have one, to a patron. Recession had destroyed any impulse for art sales. In the wake of the 1930s Depression and then the second great war, the market for modern work being dead, the need to help painters and sculptors survive had become an imperative. Even well-known artists struggled to live. Most scraped a subsistence by teaching and from occasional sales to a few wealthy supporters. A process of rigorous, almost cruel natural selection by quality was in place. In 1939 writer Raymond Mortimer pleaded that artists “need saving”. Soon after the war critic Cyril Connolly described the practice of private art collecting as “extinct”. In proposing State subsidy Keynes suggested that “We must learn by trial and error. But anything [that is, any policy of State assistance for the visual arts] would be better than the present system. The position of artists today is disastrous”. Unless you happen to be one of those The Jackdaw calls ‘the usual suspects’, those magnificent few of State Art, a cynic might shout ‘No change there then!’.

The end of the war, with its promise of a better place for the exhausted and beaten down, provided the impetus for the creation of a supportive organization

which would circulate the arts widely and thereby – crucially – stimulate over time a desire to collect artists’ work among a much broader population.

The Arts Council was founded in August 1946 and given £235,000 to spend (the equivalent of £29 million today), the bulk of which went (as before) on classical music, opera, ballet and drama

with art a distant fifth – touring exhibitions and artists’ materials were altogether cheaper than the backing required by travelling orchestras, bands, troupes and reps. By the mid-’50s classical music alone received six times the subsidy spent on the visual arts. In google_ad_slot = "6023194682"; 2015/16, the last published report available, the Arts Council spent £463 million of which a small fraction (it’s a difficult figure even to guess but it settled at between 5% and 10% in the ’70s) is spent on the visual arts. In addition, the Council is also responsible for disbursing their slice of lottery cash, £268 million a year, a sizeable portion of which throughout its
20-year history has been spent on capital visual arts projects and also, more recently, on revenue grants to favoured ‘core’ clients (the Serpentine Gallery, for example, has received no fewer than twelve lottery awards).

In the 70 years of the Council’s existence the State has effectively assumed complete control of visual art, whereas prior to 1939, and with the exception of funding for the national museums, the creation of the National Theatre and a one-off grant for the creating an orchestra google_ad_width = 970; in Birmingham, the influence of Government was non-existent: painting and sculpture had in those days been left to the market, then understood to be the best arbiter. Some, of course, argue that it still is.

On the founding of the Arts Council, early commentators (Orwell among them) expressed serious concerns that state patronage would quickly come to imply censorship and a dictatorship of taste – obviously bad things. With hindsight how perceptive were their fears.

A lengthy discussion of precisely this potential problem took place in March 1944 when a letter appeared in The Times signed by MPs and artists, condemning what they perceived as an obvious ‘Modernistic’ bias in the selection of CEMA’s exhibitions. Signatories included printmakers D Y Cameron and Frank Short, painters Alfred Munnings (soon to be elected PRA) and Frank Salisbury and sculptor Richard Garbe. They berated the poor quality of exhibitions circulated by CEMA as being “devised to carry on the baleful influence of what is known as ‘Modernistic’ art” at the expense of “traditional glories”. Keynes’s reply to this charge is highly revealing. He lists the

25 exhibitions circulated to date, only six of which had been mixed shows of modern artists – the only two one-man shows featured Sickert and Wilson Steer, neither of whom would have considered themselves remotely ‘Modernistic’. The list also included historical surveys from national collections and selections from Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions. Among the “mixed bunch of fogeys” (this is Keynes in self-deprecating mode) selecting the exhibitions were artists Tom Monnington, Duncan Grant and Henry Moore. Keynes could not have stated CEMA’s policy more clearly when he wrote in conclusion: “Our own practice and deliberate policy is to allow every form of serious
most enthusiastic and moving letter of commendation for
the touring shows came ironically from the Ashington Art Group of miner painters in Northumberland, who testified that in their community they had received three exhibitions which elicited “golden opinions” from schoolchildren, youth groups, women’s organisations and church parties. They especially enjoyed seeing original work

significant development took place in the Council’s relationship to the visual arts. Policies which until this time had concentrated on touring exhibitions, artists’ bursaries and purchases for the collection were expanded to include the gallery

domain itself. From now on the Council would try to control not only what was exhibited but the venues themselves, including their programmes. Even better they would start their own galleries. This was a crucial strategy in furtherance of revised objectives to control every aspect of visual art provision. It was the tactic by which taste dictatorship specifically disqualified as anathema by the Labour policy document emerged as a clear though unstated aim. This change did not result
from any single decision (not that we should ever have known because Arts Council meetings have scandalously never been minuted). Instead, it evolved gradually as the number of new galleries increased. These were created specifically to give outlets for those making Modern Art. Indeed, google_ad_height = 90; new galleries would eventually be designed so //--> that no other kind of work except conceptualism and installations could be shown properly. Significant increases in Government funds to the Arts Council promised in Lee’s document allowed them to effect this important change.

The original outlet of this franchise system was the ICA, the first “rallying ground” for extremism as Wyndham Lewis called it, which had been helped before (since its foundation in 1948) but which from 1968 received an annual subvention. This has continued to date and

currently runs at £1.5 million a year with the add-ons of bail-outs (due to maladministration) and Lottery funds. What started only as ad hoc assistance in the case of the Institute of Contemporary Art moved into top gear with the founding of the Hayward Gallery (also 1968), the Serpentine (1970), the Whitechapel (from the mid-’70s), Camden Arts Centre, Matt’s Gallery (1971), Chisenhale Studios (1983) and, later, South London Art Gallery.
Other galleries opened in the provinces, Ikon in Birmingham for example as early as 1965, though state subsidy came later. By

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1975 the Council was keeping afloat three London galleries, the ICA, the
Hayward and the Serpentine, and six regional ones. Additionally, a national network
of Council-funded photography galleries followed the founding of The Photographers’ Gallery in London in 1971. The Council also soon began subsidising new art magazines whose purpose was to google_ad_height = 90; write about what was shown in its own galleries. And so the Council’s approach to visual art quickly evolved into a neat self-contained operation which outsiders might easily have believed was independent.

This process of opening franchise galleries quickened after the introduction of the National Lottery in 1994, that jackpot for the arts whose funds led to a rash of arts centres around the country with similar agendas dictated by the Council. Some of these were

notorious white elephants and led to the wasting of tens of millions. (Like the bankers in 2008, Arts Council/Lottery functionaries never get sacked even for the most egregious mismanagement.) It is an irony that the appalling wastes of

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money of which the Council has been guilty have coincided with their predictable annual complaints about Government parsimony. If you were starting from scratch a

with laurel cluster must go to T. S. Eliot. In the 1930s he expressed anxiety that public funding of the arts would too easily lead to state control and a proliferation of mediocrity in place of the prospering of what was then a genuinely unpredictable avant garde. Some crystal ball!

David Lee
The Jackdaw Jan/Feb 2017