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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The UK is dangerously close to breaking apart - there's one way to fix it

We must rethink our whole constitutional settlement. 

When the then-Labour leader John Smith set up a report on social justice for what would be the incoming government in 1997, he said we must stop wasting our most precious resource – "the extraordinary skills and talents of ordinary people".

It is one of our party’s greatest tragedies that he never had the chance to see that vision put into practice. 

At the time, it was clear that while our values of equality, solidarity and tolerance endured, the solutions we needed were not the same as those when Labour was last in power in the 1970s, and neither were they to be found in the policies of opposition from the 1980s. 

The Commission on Social Justice described a UK transformed by three revolutions:

  • an economic revolution brought about by increasing globalisation, innovation and a changing labour market
  • a social revolution that had seen the role of women in society transformed, the traditional family model change, inequality ingrained and relationships between people in our communities strained
  • a political revolution that challenged the centralisation of power, demanded more individual control and accepted a different role for government in society.

Two decades on, these three revolutions could equally be applied to the UK, and Scotland, today. 

Our economy, society and our politics have been transformed even further, but there is absolutely no consensus – no agreement – about the direction our country should take. 

What that has led to, in my view, is a society more dangerously divided than at any point in our recent history. 

The public reject the status quo but there is no settled will about the direction we should take. 

And instead of grappling with the complex messages that people are sending us, and trying to find the solutions in the shades of grey, politicians of all parties are attached to solutions that are black or white, dividing us further. 

Anyone in Labour, or any party, who claims that we can sit on the margins and wait for politics to “settle down” will rightly be consigned to history. 

The future shape of the UK, how we govern ourselves and how our economy and society should develop, is now the single biggest political question we face. 

Politics driven by nationalism and identity, which were for so long mostly confined to Scotland, have now taken their place firmly in the mainstream of all UK politics. 

Continuing to pull our country in these directions risks breaking the United Kingdom once and for all. 

I believe we need to reaffirm our belief in the UK for the 21st century. 

Over time, political power has become concentrated in too few hands. Power and wealth hoarded in one corner of our United Kingdom has not worked for the vast majority of people. 

That is why the time has come for the rest of the UK to follow where Scotland led in the 1980s and 1990s and establish a People’s Constitutional Convention to re-establish the UK for a new age. 

The convention should bring together groups to deliberate on the future of our country and propose a way forward that strengthens the UK and establishes a new political settlement for the whole of our country. 

After more than 300 years, it is time for a new Act of Union to safeguard our family of nations for generations to come.

This would mean a radical reshaping of our country along federal lines where every component part of the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions – take more responsibility for what happens in their own communities, but where we still maintain the protection of being part of a greater whole as the UK. 

The United Kingdom provides the redistribution of wealth that defines our entire Labour movement, and it provides the protection for public finance in Scotland that comes from being part of something larger, something good, and something worth fighting for. 

Kezia Dugdale is the leader of the Scottish Labour party.