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?

In the hot seat: Bazalgette's focus is now on persuading business to invest
In the hot seat: Bazalgette's focus is now on persuading business to invest more in the arts. Photo: Richard Saker/Contour/Getty Images.

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