UNPUBLISHED ARTICLE BY MR ROBIN GUTHRIE
"If Regional Arts Associations did not
exist in all parts of England and Wales we would have to invent
them. Such invention would be difficult, and impossible for any
central body such as the Arts Council of Great Britain or the
Welsh Arts Council to achieve. Certainly neither Parliament nor
Whitehall could create bodies such as the present RAAs: only people
in the regions could do that. And fortunately these people have
already created them."
So wrote Lord Redcliffe Maud in 1976 in his
report on Support for the Arts in England and Wales. The
first Regional Arts Association was formed in the south west of
England in 1956, as a direct reaction to the decision of the Arts
Council in that year to close its own regional offices. By 1973
the regional arts associations covered the whole country, and
in 1991 they were transformed into Regional Arts Boards (RABs),
with greater responsibilities devolved from the Arts Council and
a firmer place in the national structure of support for the arts.
In March 2001 Gerry Robinson, Chair of the Arts
Council of England, announced his intention to abolish the RABs
and merge their assets with the Arts Council to constitute that
body as the sole organisation for the funding of the arts across
the country. He gave the RABs six weeks in which to abandon their
status as independent charities and registered companies and to
surrender their assets, liabilities and staff to the Arts Council.
The proposal was "non-negotiable": a "single organisation"
was the only option on offer.
No RAB acceded to that request. The RABs have
been unanimous that change is needed, but that more than one way
of achieving it should be considered before decisions were reached.
Several Boards rejected the proposal outright: others expressed
their concern at aspects of it. In effect, nothing happened for
four months, apart from acrimonious dispute and the diversion
of much energy that should have gone to the support of the arts
to questions of structure and the politics of change.
The national structure for the funding of the
arts has been developing ever since Maynard Keynes first took
the chair in 1945. It must continue to develop and adapt. Everyone
is now agreed on what needs to be addressed: duplication and any
unnecessary administrative overhead must be avoided; priorities
within the field of the arts must be determined; links with national
policies in social fields must be established, and so on. The
wish lists of the Arts Council and the RABs are very similar,
but the ways of achieving them are fundamentally different.
A period of public consultation was launched
by the publication of the Arts Council's revised proposals on
July 18. Two days before, however, the Secretary of State issued
a statement which foreclosed the main issue:
"The Arts Council's plans provide an excellent
blueprint for a new single organisation with much greater levels
of local involvement. The regions will be at the centre of the
new proposals with a clear intention that decision-making should
be as devolved as possible. The new organisation must work differently,
must work well and must attract and retain the best people. I
see this as a key piece of public sector reform."
The capacity for self-delusion is breathtaking.
What the Secretary of State apparently desires is the opposite
of what is about to happen.
Like Gerry Robinson himself the proposal is
superficially attractive: reduce "bureaucracy", simplify
the system, and in consequence make more money available for the
arts themselves. Even the turkeys of the RABs might vote for Christmas
on those terms. What it really means is altogether different.
First of all there will be a costly and time-consuming
process of institutional change which will benefit no-one and
serve only to distract those concerned from their service to the
arts. Two years is estimated, at a cost of £8 million. It
is likely to be at least three years, at considerably greater
cost. The merger of the Arts Council and the Crafts Council, a
relatively simple operation launched three years ago, is still
Notional savings have been variously proffered
by the Arts Council at £8 million, £10 million and even
£12 million for 2003 and beyond. These figures are unsubstantiated
targets: where and how they will be made is not clear, and whether
they will ever come on stream (and at what cost to the support
services for the arts) is uncertain. At the end of that there
will be a single national organisation for arts funding, run from
London, with delegation of executive tasks to regional offices
whose staff will have to dance to the national tune rather than
the genuine devolution of responsibility to the competence, skills
and contacts of the regional boards.
Largely as a result of the contributions of
the RABs over the past four months the Arts Council's revised
proposals are indeed very different in presentation from those
with which the RAB Chairs were faced in March. But they are not
different in substance: indeed the concessions now offered only
serve to reveal how flawed was the original proposal. Chairman
Robinson's single national organisation remains the only dish
on offertake it or, well, take it, as though it was not
considered in most circles only prudent good practice to consider
different possibilities when faced with the need for change.
Moreover the crude manner of the original announcement,
and the behaviour of the Arts Council since, have destroyed trust
between the different players in the system; they have introduced
chaos and uncertainty, and undermined the authority of the RABs
as they continue to fulfil their role to the best of their ability.
Unfortunately they have also illustrated the ruthlessly dominating
way in which a single organisation will in practice work.
One of the most significant changes is the promise
that nine of the 15 members of the Arts Council will be asked
to chair the new regional committees, and even that the regional
committees will be allowed to express a view about who their chair,
to be appointed by the Secretary of State, will be. You can read
that either way: nine out of 15 is a majority with a regional
base, but since the regional chairs are to be appointed from the
Arts Council to the regional committees it is hardly the same
as having independent chairs of free-standing regional boards
in the majority on the national body. The key lies in the legal
structure. A federal body would be constituted of independent
parts: what is proposed is a single, centralised body with regional
branches. The give-away comes in the document itself: ".
. .all decisions and actions, wherever they may be taken within
the new organisation, will be actions and decisions of the organisation
as a whole. . .". In other words, a centralised, metropolitan,
In another passage the notion of subsidiarity
is invoked, as is fashionable for any superior organisation seeking
to impose its will on subordinates. The true concept of subsidiarity
requires that the lower levels of decision-making determine what
should be treated at the higher level. The Arts Council, like
the European Commission and the Roman Catholic church, reverses
the principle so that it will be the higher level that will determine
what the lower levels will doand withdraw their privileges
should disagreement arise.
At the time of the original announcement Gerry
Robinson was scornful of the contribution of the local authorities:
"a mere 3 per cent of the costs of the RABs". He appeared
ignorant of the fact that while the subscriptions of the local
authorities to their regional boards are indeed modest (but hook
those authorities firmly into the national funding structure),
local authorities contribute in total across the country as much
financial support as central government: half the public funding
of the arts comes from local authorities. They were deeply offended
by the manner and the implication of Robinson's announcement;
some are questioning whether they should remain in the system
at all. No national system of arts funding will succeed if the
local authorities do not have a clear role in it. That is what
the present structure does provide, and the new structure can
only purport to provide in the form of regional committees (now
upgraded in name only to "regional arts councils") which
will in fact have no independent power.
Robinson's scorn extended to the RABs themselves
and their staff: "ridiculous layers of bureaucracy"
was one of his terms. I do not myself recognise the term "bureaucrat"
as an insult. Bureaucracy is but a means of ordering our affairs
with equity. There is good bureaucracy and bad bureaucracy; there
are good bureaucrats and ineffective or even destructive bureaucrats.
There are, both in the Arts Council and the RABs, administrative
tasks that have to be fulfilled. But the majority of the staff
of the RABs are not "bureaucrats" in the derogatory
sense at all: they are experts in their field, promoters of the
arts, supporters and champions of artists and arts organisations,
creators of effective partnerships to serve artistic development
and multipliers of funding.
It is clear that Robinson has had a Bad Experience,
probably in the form of the recent Theatres Review, but it was
the Arts Council that made a mess of that process, not the regional
boards, which can claim their share of credit for the ultimate
success of that operation to distribute the funds that Gerry Robinson
had so astutely raisedhe is a real champion of the arts,
when he is not messing around with structures.
In fact the roles of the Arts Council and of
the Regional Arts Boards are different and complementary. The
Arts Council has a strategic role at national and international
levels and a responsibility to support and monitor the work of
the RABs; they in their turn provide the thrust and energy for
artistic development at the regional level. Robinson clearly cannot
understand the complexities and varieties of public sector funding,
above all in this most intimate and powerful field. As a result
he has made a monumental and costly mistake, first by predetermining
a solution to a problem insufficiently analysed, and then by the
manner in which he has sought to impose it. Tessa Jowell has now
If we are in fact to rid the system of duplication
and "bureaucracy" we need to start with the Arts Council
itself. While the RABs in general have become ever more effective
the Arts Council has failed to put its own house in order. Gerry
Robinson has failed to achieve his own targets for the reform
of the Council, the clarification of its role and the reduction
of its staff. On his appointment he promised to reduce the staff
to150. It remains at around 200, together with numerous expensive
consultants. Robinson now claims that he will reduce the number
further, to 70 professionals and an undisclosed number of people
engaged in "corporate services". What they will be for
and how many there will be is not clear.
My own recent experience of the Arts Council,
first as chair of a lottery capital project and then in respect
of a major national organisation in Yorkshire, has been of an
organisation catastrophically inefficient and virtually impossible
to deal with. There are those, including some on my own Board,
who question the need for the Arts Council at all, and who would
happily receive funds direct from the Secretary of State and her
Department. I would rather see a slimmed down Arts Council playing
its proper, and limited, strategic role, and relating constructively
with the arts world largely through the RABs, who would themselves
have an increasing role in regional policies as the Government's
policies for regional development are implemented.
It is particularly sad that a new Secretary
of State should have given such unequivocal support to so contrary
and destructive a proposal. It is very New Labour: the smack of
firm government, the dismissal of provincials and local authorities
as conservative and resistant to change, the backing of a businessman
and a business solution even where he and his nostrums are entirely
inappropriate and bitterly opposed. The last thing she wants is
to lose Mr Robinson; and the first thing she wants is the Prime
Minister's approval. The motivation is all too clear.
But when all this is over, someone will reinvent
the regional arts organisations, just as they have at every crucial
point in the last six decades. I, and a good many other players,
will have left the scene long before then, in protest both at
what is proposed and at the way it has been handled.