In the hot seat: Bazalgette's focus is now on persuading business to invest more in the arts. Photo: Richard Saker/Contour/Getty Images.
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Peter Bazalgette: “Subsidy? It’s a wet, tedious , passive word. I don’t use it”

A year ago, Peter Bazalgette, the TV entrepreneur responsible for <em>Big Brother</em>, was put in charge of the £400m-a-year Arts Council England. Is he spending the funds wisely?

When, in late 2012, it was announced that Peter Bazalgette – known to all and sundry as “Baz” – was to succeed Liz Forgan as chairman of Arts Council England, the news was not universally welcomed. A former UK boss of the television company Endemol, Bazalgette was responsible for a slew of reality TV programmes that included Big Brother and Deal or No Deal and thus, in the eyes of many, he was to blame for turning the minds of the nation’s viewers to pap. No matter that Big Brother was initially an exercise in sociological television; its subsequent slump towards (and beyond) the lowest common denominator won him some vocal enemies. He has been roundly abused by, among others, Quentin Letts, Victor Lewis-Smith and, inevitably, the poor man’s Peter Ustinov, Stephen Fry. (Fry complained that Bazalgette was undoing the work of his great-great-grandfather Joseph – the Victorian engineer responsible for London’s sewerage system – by pumping shit back into our homes.)

Bazalgette, who writes a newspaper food column, once said that Marmite was a personal favourite; like that viscous spread, he has proved divisive. His appointment to the Arts Council post was not helped by the organisation’s reputation for ineffectualness and doling out public money to experimental theatre companies and contemporary dance groups. Whatever his services to dumbing down, however, Bazalgette has also been a long-standing and committed cultural advocate. He is an experienced fundraiser and a former chair of English National Opera and was a non-executive director of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport – a public service ethos that reflects that of his great-great-grandfather.

Having begun his four-year term on 1 February 2013, Bazalgette is now celebrating the end of his first year at “Ace” (as it is wincingly known). When we meet, I ask him if he was shaken by the hostility that his appointment attracted. “What attacks?” is his reflexive response. When I list them, he notes drily: “It’s not the first time Quentin Letts has had a go at me. But this is not about me.” Surely, I suggest, that’s exactly what it is about. “Look,” he says. “I’ve spent 30 years encouraging creativity and I’m not going to back off now.”

Bazalgette has had to negotiate a tricky start. He was met by funding cuts that lopped 30 per cent off Ace’s government settlement over four years and a cull that reduced its staff from more than 500 to 400. Although these changes were put in process by his predecessor, Bazalgette has had to contend with this shrunken organisation. He is as happy as he can be with what has been achieved: “Running costs now amount to 3 per cent of our budget rather than 10 per cent and when we were faced with the latest Spending Review, the government wanted to cut us by a further 10 per cent but we managed to get that down to 5 per cent.” It has left him in the curious position of “celebrating bad news”.

Money is Ace’s business. It hands out some £400m a year; £300m to about 700 national portfolio organisations (NPOs) – largely established arts organisations from the Academy of Ancient Music and the Nottingham Playhouse to the Liverpool Biennial and the Bristol Old Vic – as well as a pot of £45m for museums and £50m for Ace’s dedicated music education hubs. The dependence of arts organisations on Ace is something Bazalgette wants reduced: “Ten years ago, the NPOs relied on Ace for 50 per cent of their funding. Now, it’s closer to 30 per cent.”

Central funding, however, will always be necessary and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “We have had a mixed economy for a century,” says Bazalgette. “The arts are part of that. Public funding has given us a world-class cultural scene. Just compare us to Paris, Rome or even New York. The arts are cheap – 14 pence a week per taxpayer goes to the arts, a third of what the French spend. It’s a tiny sum of money.” But the subsidy is shrinking. “I don’t use the word ‘subsidy’. It’s a wet, tedious word. I use ‘investment’. ‘Subsidy’ sounds so passive.”

His focus is now on persuading business to “invest” in the arts more. But why should it? If the arts are vital for the health of society, shouldn’t the government pick up the bill, just as it does for health and education? “The holistic case for investment in the arts starts with the intrinsic value of culture,” he says.

No doubt, but does business really believe that? “Well, it’s true shareholders don’t always like to see what could have been their dividends being spent on the arts,” he tells me, “but there are good reasons they should – altruism, a genuine marketing payback, fulfilling their own corporate social responsibility objectives ...” In the end, however, “There has to be a payback. There is no such thing as a motiveless gift.”

Business investment in the arts fell in the five years to 2011 but the latest figures (for 2011-2012) show a small rise, from £113.6m to £113.8m. Last month, Tate Modern made headlines with a multimillion-pound sponsorship deal with the South Korean car manufacturer Hyundai, which will support the Turbine Hall commissions for 11 years.

Perhaps, I suggest, arts organisations might attract more generous funding from businesses – and more interest from the public – if they focused on high-quality traditional forms, rather than some of the more recherché art that Ace encourages. “The public is not this single group of people. It’s made up of all sorts and there is an extraordinary appetite for the new and exciting. To feed it, you must invest in the future.”

Isn’t there something patronising about an arts cadre assuming it is good for the public – however amorphous – to be challenged? One of the roles of art is surely to offer comfort. “Today’s outrage is tomorrow’s public acceptance,” he counters. “Take Grayson Perry: he’s gone from frock-wearing potter to well-loved public figure. Turning the specialist into the mainstream is a key part of Ace’s duty. Some won’t work but others will.” He cites the example of Danny Boyle, who started out at the Royal Court Theatre.

But for every Danny Boyle, there is a failure, such as the £9.5m Arc arts centre in Stockton-on-Tees, which had to be bailed out by Ace. Aren’t such cases body blows? “‘Body blow’ is putting it too strongly,” says Bazalgette, before quickly going on to stress the roles of local authorities in arts funding. “Really enlightened ones, such as East Lindsey District Council, are actually increasing their arts spending because they know of the benefits it can bring.” East Lindsey, which includes Skegness, bumped up its funding from £50,000 to £350,000. This made it possible to put up a screen on Skegness beach for live feeds from Garsington Opera, although its popularity, Bazalgette concedes, might have had something to do with Andy Murray’s Wimbledon triumph being shown immediately beforehand.

There is nothing new about the message that the arts bring exponential economic benefits. Skegness is no exception: the Turner Contemporary in Margate and the Hepworth Wakefield gallery in West Yorkshire, for example, have been the catalysts for regeneration in their surrounding areas. The problem is getting both councils and the public not simply to understand that art can attract money (they already do) but to believe it instinctively – and that, Bazalgette concedes, is “a challenge”.

Bazalgette’s first year at Ace has been busy. “I’ve measured out my life in railway carriages,” he says. “I’ve criss-crossed the country.” If you want to see where he’s been, he suggests you look at his Twitter feed. He has long been an arts consumer: “Before this, I was a regular attender of opera, theatre and classical music and a bit more irregular at ballet, the visual arts and literary events.” Now, it is a bit of everything – pressing the flesh, fact-finding, beating the arts drum.

What, I ask, is the art form he’s drawn to most instinctively? “You’re not getting me on that,” he says with a surprising degree of animation. Why not? Most people have a preferred art form but that doesn’t mean they can’t like others, too. After being pressed, he grudgingly concedes: “If I ’fessed up, I would say I look for ‘performance’ but I won’t go further than that. It’s like being asked if you have a favourite child and we don’t do that, do we?”

What we do is discuss the moral power of the arts, their ability to raise the individual and society, and so on. This may be a cliché, but it’s one that Bazalgette claims to believe in with a passion. “I spent eight years on the board of English National Opera. I wouldn’t have done that unless I believed in it.” When Endemol was sold in 2007, it fetched €3.2bn. At Ace, he earns £40,000 a year for two days work a week.

It can perhaps be read as a sign of qualified success that the chatter around Ace has died back and that the non-populist populist at its head is no longer attracting the opprobrium that greeted his appointment. It may irk Quentin Letts et al but if Ace were the Big Brother house, there is no sign that Bazalgette is in any danger of being voted out.

Michael Prodger is assistant editor of the New Statesman

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron the captive

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.