Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Incorporated Society of Musicians


  ISM Responds to "Working Together for the Arts"

  The Incorporated Society of Musicians has submitted a commentary on Working Together for the Arts, the document published earlier this year which sets out proposals for reorganising the Arts Council of England.

  The commentary takes the form of a letter dated 14 September 2001 from Neil Hoyle, Chief Executive of the ISM, to Peter Hewitt, Chief Executive of the ACE.

  The complete text of the letter is attached.

Text of letter dated 14 September 2001 to Mr Peter Hewitt, Chief Executive, Arts Council of England from Mr Neil Hoyle, ISM Chief Executive

  I am writing to offer a contribution from the Incorporated Society of Musicians to the debate on Working Together for the Arts.

  The ISM is the UK's professional body for musicians. We are not, and never have been, a client of any Arts Council. But many of our members depend on public funding for their livelihoods. So we have an interest in ensuring that funding systems for supporting artists and arts organisations are based on rational frameworks, and operate equitably. We have therefore been closely following the progress of the proposals for reorganising the Arts Council of England. Our primary concern is with principles rather than operational matters.

  We share many of the reservations which have been expressed about the substance and handling of the proposals. Working Together is a considerable improvement on its predecessor, which consisted mainly of assertion rather than argument. But a strong flavour of top-down fiat remains. Only one possible way of restructuring is advanced for discussion, and an unduly compressed timetable is envisaged.

  In all organisations—especially administrative structures, which have a natural tendency to inertia—there is scope for change and improvement. But particular difficulties arise when the impetus for change arises from external pressures, which may not reflect the needs of those the organisation exists to serve, but are derived instead from priorities drawn up by an influential external agency which wants it to serve a wider purpose. The difficulties are compounded if the external body holds the purse-strings. This is the inauspicious context against which Working Together must be considered.

  The thinking behind the proposals is understandable. In a large corporation, where a conventional structure of business units is pursuing clearly-defined commercial goals, the suggested processes might well be valid. But they are not suitable for a less formal type of organisation dealing with largely unquantifiable outcomes, where policy-making must reflect the importance of value judgments, as well as the difficulties of defining goals, of measuring output, and of serving clients whose preferences cannot be expressed through the price mechanism.

  The proposals are evidently underpinned by a belief that what is good for a large business should be equally good for an organisation which exists to support artists. But that is not self-evidently true. Indeed, the instincts behind this style of management, which are corporatist and centralist rather than diverse and dispersive, go against the principles which led to the breaking-up of the Arts Council of Great Britain and the establishment of the RABs, and which are generally accepted as correct. These devolutionary principles—that as many decisions as possible should be returned to people in their own areas—are an intrinsic part of the spirit of the age, and it would be imprudent to ignore them. It is helpful to have a united voice—sometimes. But at other times it can be even more helpful to have several voices, contributing different views. And there is nothing wrong with robust internal debate.

  The proposals appear to equate the public with a company's shareholders. But the interests of the public, especially in artistic matters, are notoriously hard to identify—certainly, harder than those of shareholders. Pressure groups, which give voice to concerns about "needs, interests, circumstances and accessibility" are not necessarily representative. It is unhelpful, and almost certainly wrong, to suggest that the public's interest is solely in "delivery"—itself a vague term, given the range of objectives, not all of them quantifiable, which an artistic enterprise will be seeking to achieve. Furthermore, members of the public are not passive consumers of art. The more knowledgeable they are, and thus the more likely to bring critical judgment to bear on the quality of output, the more interest they will take in the mechanisms of a system which is producing that output.

  The requirements of artists and arts organisations are well summed up on page seven of Working Together. But the basic simplicity of their needs is vitiated by the demands of government, summed up in the last paragraph on that page. This may be the nub of the problem. The government apparently regards itself as the holder of a "golden share", entitling it to impose detailed obligations on the Arts Council, and thus, at one remove, on its clients. The arts are now expected to play their part in achieving the aims of a plethora of social and economic policies. But it is far from clear that the internal implications of many of these policies have yet been resolved, let alone their potential contradictions with one another. In the circumstances, an expectation that the system will operate "in a way which pays due regard to policies, not only in the arts, but also in other, related areas, both economic and social" is bound to result in "burdens of paperwork and statistical and other returns". Apart from being compelled to adopt these bureaucratic means of trying to resolve policy tensions, the bodies responsible for those policies will have to be seen to be discharging their functions in a fully accountable fashion. It is simply not possible for them to "trust arts organisations to get on with their work" when the application of so many policies has to be overseen.

  We fear, therefore, that the new system will simply replicate many of the difficulties being experienced by other "public service" national organisations which are nominally devolved, yet are in fact closely controlled from the centre by a variety of management systems and performance indicators. The result is an ever-increasing bureaucracy, which exists to devise, monitor, analyse, discuss and revise a phalanx of performance targets. Another symptom of this dysfunctional method of operating is a tendency to try and manage issues by public posturing to air differences externally, and especially in the media, rather than seek to resolve them internally and privately.

  The essence of the problem, then, is the excessively complex socio-economic policy context which has been set up for the arts by the government. The present Arts Council structure is suspected of being unable to deliver the results, which are required. Yet it is highly doubtful whether the proposed structure, with its corporatist leanings, could do any better. Instead, it would probably increase the degree of bureaucracy, as the national office strove to ensure that every policy was being pursued at every level. The £8-10 million worth of savings, which have in any case never been accurately identified, are most unlikely to materialise.

  What is needed instead, as a first step, is a reassessment of the policy context, to see how much of it is genuinely relevant to the Arts Council's purposes, and to ensure that the arts are not being made to carry too great a burden of extraneous policy expectations.

  A number of more specific points arise from the proposals.

  Many of the flaws identified in the "need for reform" chapter on pages 10 and 11 (eg, sharing information, inconclusive meetings) could be rectified by much less drastic operational measures. Indeed, they are likely to be a symptom less of inefficiency than of conscientiousness on the part of officials, in trying firstly to understand, and then to implement, the many and various policies laid down by central and local government. Others are not flaws at all, but are instead characteristics of a broad and flexible system, which has developed different ways of dealing with local circumstances. In this respect, it will be truly "market-based". A properly functioning system of any kind may appear to suffer from duplication of skills and functions; but the duplication is more apparent than real, since the process of providing services to clients is dynamic, and not static. Only a monopoly thinks otherwise; and monopolies are invariably damaging both to those they purport to serve, and in the long run to themselves. Mechanisms for ensuring that "best practice is replicated from region to region" often become little more than Procrustean beds, which fit no one properly.

  For all its good intentions, the proposals fail to resolve some key tensions between the national and regional operations. For example, national companies who play a vital role in maintaining and developing the evolving heritage of contemporary classical music will find themselves pulled in other directions by the imposition of regional and local priorities. Even there, it is arguable that apparently locally-based activities such as education and outreach work in fact have national audiences, based on touring activities. It is far from clear that the proposals will succeed in eliminating some of the difficulties associated with touring programmes in the current structure.

  As a professional body, we are especially interested in the proposals to set up a pool of specialist advisers. But there are some obscure aspects here. Most specialists will be based in the regions. It is not clear how they would form a "national team" in practical terms; or whether an acknowledged expert who lived at one end of the country would regularly be asked to travel to the other end to offer advice. The welter of socio-economic policies, which the arts are being expected to bear is reflected in the level of multi-skilling which seems to be demanded of the advisers. It is implausible to suppose that a specialist adviser in a particular art form will also be competent to contribute to "policy discussions, appraisals, mentoring and other forms of advice". The system for appointing these specialists needs to be as transparent as possible, to avoid any risk of cronyism.

  You will have received many representations—some supporting the proposals; others opposing them. We would by no means contend that the current system is the best there could be. But that is not an argument for a wholesale reform, which might leave some problems unresolved and introduce fresh ones. We would urge you to examine some of the alternatives, which have been advanced, particularly A Unified Approach, which has come from the RABs themselves.

January 2002

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