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


Memorandum submitted by Mr Martin Rewcastle



  While I now run Beviss & Beckingsale, a well-established law firm practising in Devon, Somerset and Dorset, my background is in professional arts management. My roles from 1972 have included the commercial direction of a major visual arts magazine; the first ever community and education work at the Whitechapel Gallery where I also devised and led its capital development programme under Nick Serota, I have variously chaired a number of Greater London Arts committees, was a Member of the Crafts Council, and Director of South West Arts from 1983-90, where I also initiated the Tate St. Ives project. I have 10 years' experience as a senior consultant working on major arts and museum projects and community regeneration strategies in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I personally have been involved in arts funding and reorganisation issues including those of Lord Redcliff Maud for the Gulbenkian Foundation, Sir William Rees Mogg's Glory of the Garden strategy and the Wilding Report. In sum, while submitting this as an individual, my comments are based on long, direct and considered involvement in these issues.


  I, along with every artist and arts professional I know, have watched with increasing disbelief as the Arts Council's extraordinarily silly reorganisation proposals have continued to receive political credence. It is now nine months since Sir Gerry Robinson first tried to impose them, more than sufficient time for a politician or Civil Service advisor to realise that they were fundamentally flawed in concept and to see that no evidence has come forth to demonstrate that they will achieve the systemic effectiveness or fiscal efficiency which is so badly needed.

  Indeed, a number of colleagues have decided not to submit evidence on the grounds that, for such a badly conceived project to have survived for so long and continue to receive government backing, there must be some unpublicised agreement with Government to support Gerry Robinson's proposal. As with the Dome and a number of other Lottery projects, reorganisation must at some point have become a matter of reputation, where no amount of serious research could influence the outcome, no matter how conceptually or logically flawed. One or two simply fear that to submit evidence will mark them out and could negatively affect their position and work in the art world.

  I do not subscribe to either point of view but, as a natural Labour supporter, the very fact that artists, of all people, could ever feel this way about speaking freely in a democracy disturbs me deeply.


  On 11 September, Peter Hewitt, Chief Executive of the Arts Council, presented the proposals to a forum in Exeter. He then made absolutely clear that the only reorganisation proposal, which he and Gerry Robinson would ever entertain, is the amalgamation of all the regional funding bodies into the Arts Council. The reason he gave was to end both petty bickering and different approaches to cultural support.

  This is the conceptual core of the Robinson project: that it makes sense to create a single, seamless funding approach for the arts. It does not, and never has, due to the very nature of the subject. A work of art derives its essential quality through its uniqueness—not norm—of vision. A cultural support system without a right of dissent built in can never support a healthy diversity of vision and approach. And a system which actually sets out to rid itself of diverse courses of action inevitably will wind up supporting an inflexible, normative approach to culture. Real culture, real vision will bypass it.

  In essence, the petty bickering between England's funding institutions may be a seriously annoying by-product of a diverse system, but it has a crucial function in the health and constant renewal of the arts and culture in a democracy. Rather like serious parliamentary debate and the concept of an official opposition: definitely annoying for some but absolutely essential for all.


    (a)   Loss of best practice: A single system simply cannot easily adjust itself since it will have destroyed the constant, comparative learning process, an endemic function of diversity. From whom will the new English monolithic system adopt best practice? The irony is that Peter Hewitt made a great play in his 11 September presentation how the Arts Council itself had learned in so many areas of its work how to do things better precisely because of original advances and experiments first made in the regions.

    (b)   Adjustment to broader change: a single body will find it far more difficult to adjust as cultural or political landscapes shift, especially in a country where both cultural and financial power is so centralised, influenced by the inevitable London grouping of wealth, media opinion political and cultural monuments (both people and buildings). Inevitably—and this problem certainly is not confined cultural agendas—Gerry Robinson's new London based monolithic agency is practically guaranteed to create popular suspicion amongst those who choose to live outside and detached from London's inner circles of influence and patronage. And this just at a time when the Government is, through a series of forthcoming White Papers, considering strengthening the role of regional agencies, in effect to try to bring decision-making to some degree closer to the people directly affected by those decisions.

    (c)   Power to influence more public funding: In Gerry Robinson's early statements as well as in Peter Hewitt's presentation, both said that the single most important point of changing the system was, in effect, to get more money. To quote Peter Hewitt: "The £8-£10 million back of the envelop calculation of savings we might find in the new system is tiny compared to what we think out funding case to government via single system will bring to the arts from the Treasury".

         However, if the crude underlying issue is to access more public subsidy by proving the system capable of far less bureaucracy and systemic staff overlap, then it is perfectly possible within the system that exists now to sit down, negotiate and, if necessary, drive through those results without throwing the baby out with the bath water. Bluntly, the Arts Council has absolutely no need for total integration for its present funding power to talk very seriously where a region is patently inefficient. The degree of funding power it now has over the independent regional system is more than sufficient to give it the upper hand.

         The issue here really is the Arts Council's present ability to act as national housekeeper. For example: if, after nine months, it still is holding to the £8-10 million savings estimate but still is unable to identify exactly where these originally back of the envelop savings are going to come from, then one could rightly conclude that the Arts Council's basic analytical capability is flawed.

    (d)   Loss of financial potential beyond public subsidy: The change to a single system seems only to be about public subsidy as practised now. It has not once addressed the broader longer-term support issues being put in place by the Government, nor the fact that public subsidy, if well used, provides an ideal tool to leverage extremely important financial support from other sources. While I am aware that some regions continue to cite the loss of longstanding local government support directly to them as bodies, it is as relevant to suggest that a future Regional Arts Board could be its region's ideal cultural foundation vehicle to maximise the Chancellor's recent, massive changes to the tax regime, themselves meant to encourage far more direct personal/corporate charitable support as in the US. Indeed, that combined function of public funding/charity support is precisely the role adopted by many US regional arts agencies, some of which now have built up quite substantial endowments through this process.

  Independent and still charitably based English RABs would be perfectly placed to address such a broader, personal support agenda in their region. A monolithic Arts Council, subsuming all RABs and seen inevitably a far distant national agency by most potential donors, simply has no similar capacity to grow, change and act as a serious lever to private donors/sponsors in the respective regions.


  It is tragic that the leaders of the Arts Council have adopted and still cling to a model so fundamentally flawed in both concept and delivery. It simply is a Dome by another name, lacking seriously in vision, serious research and development as a functioning model, and, above all, in practicality. After all the lessons of the past few years, I do not want to believe that it still is possible politically for any political group or party to drive through such a flawed idea without testing it thoroughly. It really is time to sort the system properly, not to adopt a model that, as history has shown since 1956—when the Arts Council first closed it regional offices and thus caused a new regional movement to be born—that we will all be here again over the same old issue in a year or two.

  Finally, I sense that the Committee may have a simple solution to hand which could do the future of English cultural support an enormous favour. Could it not ask the Commons Accounts Committee thoroughly to test the Arts Council's monolithic model alongside the other—and to my mind—more efficient, creative and culturally friendly means available to reform and revitalise the arts funding system?

10 January 2002

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