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 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

400 Bad Request

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 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 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 endeavour its opportunity.” Supporting Keynes, other correspondents praised the “wide and catholic” choices from “modernistic to academic”. The 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 of a kind only previously known through bad reproductions. 

There is no evidence here ­­– not a scrap ­– to suggest that the precursors and founders of the Arts Council had any intention of showing only ‘Modernistic’ art, or of favouring vanguard styles at the expense of others. The reverse is demonstrably true. Their intention was to show everything of merit and the positive response of the Ashington Group is testimony of their success.

Throughout the Arts Council’s existence, and especially in its later maturity, it has undoubtedly taken to an extreme the private views and preferences of those who willed it into existence. Today the Arts Council does precisely what Fry, Bell, Keynes, Clark, Read and others wanted it to do in encouraging appreciation of the avant garde, except that it now does it to the exclusion of everything else. The Arts Council’s founding principles, written by Keynes almost word for word, were, however, pragmatic for having been argued over. In the Royal Charter for the Arts Council of August 9th 1946 (three months after Keynes’s death), this is what it says should be developed: “a greater knowledge, understanding and practice of the fine arts exclusively and in particular to increase the accessibility of the fine arts to the public throughout Our Realm, to improve the standard of execution of the fine arts and to advise and co-operate with Our Government Departments, local authorities and other bodies on any matters concerned directly or indirectly with those objects.”

Such slippery bureaucratic flannel is now irrelevant and has anyway long since been superseded by tinkerings and other vague ‘forms of words’, through which calculating fixers could drive their carriage and fours. The fact is the Council now exhibits, encourages and buys for its collection only what it describes as “innovative” and “challenging” work. Naturally, the Council itself decides what these words mean and to what and to whom they can be applied. The effect is that everything else has had to fight its own battle for survival. The Council no longer represents the visual arts as a naturally divers entity, as Keynes intended, but only a corner of this potentially rich tapestry. And the Council is comfortable with this. It no longer makes any show of even-handedness where style is concerned, to the extent that it has become the censoring organization Orwell feared it might. Whereas in the beginning it may have paid lip service to balanced provision of styles and techniques, it now tells us to accept what we’re given whether we like it or not. Additionally, there are now also the Council’s sinister and prurient obsessions with ‘diversity’, ‘accessibility’ and gender/minority quotas. If only in place of this puerile stab at social engineering they were as interested in exhibiting a representative ‘diversity’ of approaches and mediums instead of so relentlessly monotonous a diet of conceptualism.

With the creation of the Arts Council, for the first time the State took on responsibility for funding Contemporary Art, a phrase in which ‘Contemporary’ would come to mean ‘Extreme’.

One other inheritance from CEMA requiring acknowledgement is the collecting of art. In 1942, in an attempt to increase the number of exhibitions they were capable of preparing quickly, CEMA allocated £750 for the purchase of works by living British artists. Some of this cash was spent commissioning limited edition prints from the most famous artists in order that they might circulate the same collection to different venues simultaneously. All these works (including numerous items inherited 400 Bad Request from the The Pilgrim Trust bought for the same purpose) were passed on to the Arts Council who continued with the policy of buying works from a gamut of painters and sculptors. The early collections are online in full. Look at them, their range is faultless. Selection was omnivorous and over the collection’s history it became an important means of assisting young artists at the fragile incipient phase of their careers. In 1975 when the Council was driving headlong towards greater control of its clients, and when it was still claiming that its job was to “maintain and improve the traditional arts” (already then a barefaced lie), the Council’s budget for purchases was increased by 300%. As with other aspects of Arts Council policies in the visual arts the works bought today are only those considered, yes, ‘innovative’, ‘cutting edge’ and ‘challenging’. To ensure compliance purchasing is now done by six officials who are most often either directly or indirectly employed by the Council itself. Naturally, they don’t buy modern figurative painting, except in rare cases where it ticks ethnic or other minority boxes.

 Equally important, in the touring exhibitions of CEMA and those of the British Institute of Adult Education in the 1930s, was the need to decentralise and to circulate modern art to regions where it was unknown. It was always the intention of the Council’s founders to use the shows as a vehicle to encourage greater public participation in the visual arts, especially with more difficult recent work for which exhibition selectors themselves were important advocates and patrons. Despite the misguided concerns of bias raised in 1944 mentioned above, when the Arts Council appeared selection continued to be even-handed. The varied list of exhibitions the Arts Council supported initially and throughout the 1950s and ’60 are testimony to this. Even from as late as the founding in 1968 of the Hayward Gallery (Arts Council created and funded) the diversity of work was exemplary in providing something for everyone. Indeed, until this century the Hayward was an indispensable part of my own education, until, that is, it shut the door on the past and other aspects of the present with which its hierarchy exhibited no sympathy. At this point the Hayward started showing the same international conceptualism by a seemingly limitless supply of foreign unknowns as the Serpentine, South London Art Gallery, the Whitechapel, Camden Arts Centre and the godfather of them all, the Institute of Contemporary Art, more about which below.

This desire to engineer a new audience for art has also been a headline aim of the Arts Council. Initially they were still idealistic enough to believe their own laudably democratic rhetoric: at that stage they couldn’t have known any better. The fact that this ‘widening of access’ mantra is still, 70 years later, burning brightly throughout their self-promotional literature is an indication of the Council’s lack of success in establishing an audience for the work it wishes to show. Over the lifetime of the Arts Council the demographic of those interested in art, and especially in extreme art, is unchanged. Art remains the preserve of the well-educated and those professionally involved with culture industries. However impossible it is to engender participation in the otherwise uninterested, and despite knowing by now that such efforts are anyway perennially doomed to failure, the Government like to hear this often repeated ambition – and so it is destined forever to remain a stalwart of the Council’s principles in order to please political masters who then allow them ‘arms-length’ freedom to spend taxpayer cash on their own fascinations. We have seen sufficient evidence over recent decades to know that attempts at implementing deterministic policies are doomed to failure if they are – without wholesale populist debasement of content – to preserve what makes museums and galleries worth visiting in the first place.

The first time that what the Arts Council stood for in the visual arts had been written down in detail was in Labour’s document called A Policy for the Arts published by the first Minister for the Arts, Jennie Lee, in 1965. This is the matrix for any art policy statements published since. All the old boilerplate favourites are here Brassoed to a high shine: “the arts being made more widely available” especially in “drabber industrial areas”; the financial difficulties of artists must be immediately addressed; to follow universal education and universal national health there must be universal art provision; the removal of “the cheerless, unwelcoming air” of galleries; new art centres for all; grants to help young artists get started; “a new social climate … is essential”; everyone deserves the best … and so on. We’ve heard this litany myriad times since – they are now the default phrases programmed into the computer of every Arts Council drone.

Also in A Policy for the Arts, indeed in its very first paragraph, it states: “No one would wish State patronage to dictate taste…”  Oh no definitely not. God forbid. Perish the thought. Unfortunately, in subsequent literature, and despite it being echoed by Arts Council chief Lord Goodman in 1970, this estimable sentiment was soon toed under the settee while no one was looking. It never re-appeared.

In the immediate aftermath of Jennie Lee’s aspirational document a 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, 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 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 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 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 process of public funding for the visual arts you’d look at the Arts Council as a risible demonstration of how not to do it.

The Council was now also susceptible to the growing and irresistible current of Modernistic novelties, that selling out to ‘progress’ for its own sake described in the last issue (What Happened to Art Education?, The Jackdaw, 130), which affected all national institutions after the war. In The Demon of Progress in the Arts Wyndham Lewis identified this current as early as 1954 and had described it as “a contagion that hurries an artist to zero and to the death of talent” and “a mad bug which has entered into the body of the arts”. He said the relentless drift was towards “infantile extremist sensationalism”. Considered a crank by many, Wyndham Lewis’s views were in hindsight astutely prophetic.

Official zeal for more avant-garde approaches to making art expressed by the early godfathers of the Arts Council would find its apogee in the exhibition policies of these new Arts Council franchises. The previously feared prescriptiveness and censorship would blossom here. For the first time the Arts Council could exercise complete control over who and what was shown, and where, by placing these financially dependant clients under the directorship of their own staff. This was key. Of course they continued paying lip service to the politically expedient phrases listed above, whilst ignoring them completely. An early example of how Arts Council philosophy could be maintained within house is the fact that the next Chairman of the Arts Council, Serota, who, as has been stated above, from 1970 had been groomed in the Council’s offices, started his gallery career in 1973 as the director of one of these new outlets, the Museum of Modern Art (as it was then called) in Oxford, which had opened the year after Jennie’s Lee’s document and had been created by the Arts Council to promote its own policies. Three years later Serota moved up to another burgeoning Arts Council client, Whitechapel Art Gallery, which though it had existed since the 19th century had been gradually repositioned as a gallery of the avant garde. Having one of its own in charge meant that the right kind of work by the right kinds of artists would be shown, Serota having already proved himself reliably on message.

Accompanying Arts Council cheques came the inevitable coercion. For the Council, paying the piper now meant calling the tune and by the early ’80s strings had become blackmail with menaces. I had personal knowledge of this now ubiquitous practice. During the ’80s I contributed to a photography magazine whose existence relied exclusively on Arts Council subsidy. This money, a pittance, was not awarded because this was a seriously edited publication with an international reputation commanding tremendous devotion among informed devotees. It was given in order to further the Council’s own ends in what might crudely be termed its snowballing social engineering agenda. The editor of Creative Camera, who was a friend and a person of considerably greater knowledge and accomplishments than anyone then working in the Council’s visual art and photography departments, was told that continuation of his grant depended on demonstrable conformity to what would later become known as Political Correctness. He once casually confided to me that he had been asked by his paymasters to supply immediately the names of black photographers whose works had appeared on the cover. As he explained to me, he didn’t know the answer because it had never occurred to him to ask. Flippant non-compliance, he was told, would seriously affect his next annual application. The Council also demanded representation on the magazine’s governing board. This now insidious and common  tactic is employed by the Council as a first step to takeover. A short time afterwards my friend quit in disgust, the magazine becoming a shadow of what it had been, forced as it now was into chasing approval from its paymasters. The Council’s determinism was now shameless.

Also during the Thatcher years Arts Council policy in the visual arts overlapped exactly with activist leftism. As a common enemy  Thatcher unified in animosity everybody of other political persuasions. In the visual arts the Arts Council became nakedly left wing. It said it wasn’t, but you didn’t need to look further than the revolutionary agendas of some of their revenue clients, especially in the photographic field, for evidence of the contrary.

This politicising bias wasn’t the only area for which the Arts Council began to attract regular mockery. They were now prepared to support anything at all Progressive, especially if it endorsed the Council’s anti-bourgeois credentials. Increasingly public subsidy became associated with stunts that offered nothing remotely interesting to the public. From the ’80s onwards newspapers were weekly exposing the ridiculous antics the taxpayer was funding. The fact that there were scores of these enormities, all of which were claimed as significant by their protagonists, and which now are forgotten, is indicative of the shocking waste of scarce resources they represented. Nothing has remained of them. The most infamous incident, and the harbinger of what was to come, was the award in 1975 given to three men to walk around the countryside with poles on their heads. The Council later admitted its mistake. Unfortunately, having nailed their colours to the mast of novelty for its own sake, it was an error their regional outposts couldn’t resist repeating in pursuit of vanguard credibility. 

From the early ’80s onwards newspaper and magazine readers were treated to regular exposés of the Council’s perverse modus operandi in the visual arts. In a series of articles in Art Monthly Michael Daley demonstrated the relationships between recipients of funds and those who were on the Council’s committees; too often, he discovered by meticulous research, they were the same person. Membership of the Council’s visual arts committee had also been engineered to be doctrinally compliant. They comprised directors of Council-created and -funded galleries who were now among the major recipients of Council funds. Not surprisingly they awarded themselves more and more money. Exposed by a Sunday newspaper as corrupt conflicts of interest these committees were quietly disbanded. 

When Serota, the Council’s own man, went to the Tate in 1989 and institutionalised Contemporary Art in a new version of the Turner Prize, publicity about which would monopolise visual art coverage throughout the year, the emergence of State Art was complete. Its disconnection from anything wider society might recognise as art was achieved. From now on it would be four legs good. We entered the New Age of the Modern Art Evangelist, the robot who floats about in black trying to look and sound like ‘one of us’ and whose career depends on saying and writing the right things. There was no longer any pretence in Arts Council galleries that they would show all contemporary art or even acknowledge that any recent art history other than their own had ever existed. We had entered the Year Zero age when Contemporary Art fixers believed art history had begun the previous week. They no longer wanted or needed to know anything that had happened prior to that. Another small matter was the language they invented in order to explain their preferences to the rest of us: unfortunately it wasn’t English. 

And this is the condition we find ourselves in now. Fuelled by the taxpayer and the working class gambler here is the finished article of State Art, whose functionaries operate with impunity and who are knighted and medalled, and whose policies both main political parties cravenly support.


The crucial position of the Arts Council in dictating what we see in the visual arts is not likely to be relaxed whilst absolutist Serota is in charge, for he is State Art. More likely, under him power will be centralised even further. As local authority funding is squeezed to a drip, help from the Arts Council will become even more essential and, therefore, the potential for coercion and dictatorship proportionately increased. 

If ever there was an intended attempt to socially engineer a new constituency for visual art it has failed miserably. In order to achieve this an audience is needed and this is precisely what the State Art exhibited by the Arts Council doesn’t have. Indeed, it is even more exclusive than the allegedly old fashioned, class-exclusive work it replaced. There is no audience for the style of Contemporary Art the Arts Council favours and this is the reason why its galleries, especially those in the provinces, are eerily empty.

The Arts Council was started with brave aims. It now bears no resemblance either to what it was or what its fathers intended it to be.

For 70 years the State has poured money into visual arts in order to produce mountains of what is stillborn and instantly forgettable: the Switch House, State Art’s new Parnassus, is an expensive monument to the indifferent. The effect has been first to encourage and then to institutionalise a truly epic quantity of local, national and

international mediocrity hardly anyone cares about but which costs a small fortune to store, conserve and transport and wouldn’t exist without public subsidy. Serota will make a perfect figurehead for such a flabby, wasteful, complacent and self-important system. And finally, when it comes to prescience in anticipating the failure of publicly funded extremism, the gold medal 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!