'Do we really need an Arts Council?' is the question that lies at the heart of Sir Christopher Frayling's article on arts policy (pp. 8-9), and one that will produce instant knee-jerk reactions, on both sides of the argument, from many reading this. For Frayling, Chair of Arts Council England, the answers are clear enough: ultimately, we need an arts council system of some kind, to allow the arts to flourish away from the dead, stifling hand of direct government control. More to the point, Frayling asserts that the Arts Council in its current form may not be perfect, but it works.
Fair enough, and the recent hard fought battle in Wales to secure the future of the Arts Council of Wales (ACW) in the face of a hostile take-over bid from the Assembly Government seems to demonstrate a certain level of support for arts councils amongst the arts community ACW was never particularly popular with the sector until its existence was threatened. So perhaps the question might be more usefully positioned thus: if we accept that we need arts councils, what roles do we need them to perform? For example, is an arts council the most appropriate body to lobby the Government on behalf of the arts when its own existence depends on it maintaining a good relationship with that very same Government (and how ironic that, in Wales, it was the arts sectors lobbying on behalf of its arts council that ultimately helped preserve ACWs knife-edge existence). Furthermore, if an arts councils role is to be that of a truly independent arts development agency, is it right that the arts organisations it funds should be selected in order to deliver the governments own targets for social change? Is this really the cherished arms-length principle that Keynes had in mind? Would he really have approved of an arts council being beholden to government policy, required to serve the Government it is supposed to be removed from? On balance we probably do need arts councils, but for as long as the arts funding purse strings are held by the Government, the arms-length principle surely will never be powerful enough to deliver the type of autonomy that artists might hope for.
Nick Jordan, Editor