State of the arts conference, 14 February, The Lowry, Manchester
Organised by Arts Council England (ACE) in partnership with the BBC, this disappointingly anodyne conference was an exercise in command, control and public relations. Billed as the annual opportunity for the arts sector to debate the principal challenges and contexts facing the arts, it was an over-engineered day of empty rhetoric that managed to valorise artists while simultaneously patronising them. It avoided all formal mention of the quite difficult reality in which most arts organisations are operating, and made no attempt to engage the sector in honest dialogue that might lead to decisive action.
The triumvirate of Alan Davey, Liz Forgan and Ed Vaizey opening the conference (respectively ACE Chief Executive, ACE Chair and Culture Minister) didn’t so much as paper over the cracks as appear in complete denial that there are any. In contrast to the barbed exchanges at the 2011 conference, Arts Council England and the DCMS don’t just appear to have reached détente, but an entente cordiale, with Liz Forgan calling Ed Vaizey “our national Valentine”. Really? Not mine. One can only assume that there are delicate negotiations taking place behind closed doors, probably involving the 50% administration cuts that ACE is being required to make.
Challenged by chair-for-the-day Kirsty Wark over the falling number of applicants to university arts courses, Alan Davey pledged to “watch” the situation. It was a response typical of the wishy-washy mush that was spoken by our most senior arts policy makers.
It was left to curator Sally Lai, who brought up the controversial issue of visas for international artists, and playwright David Edgar to be the heroic dissenting voices from the stage in the morning keynote panel discussion. But it was Edgar’s excellent essay “Looking back, moving forwards” that properly contextualised the arts, and key policy debates within the arts – paternalism v participation, instrumentalism v populism, excellence and access – that was the highlight of the day. How much more effective it would have been to hear this presentation in the morning, contributing to the tone and structure of the day. Woefully, it was timetabled for 5.15 pm, the last item on the agenda.
The delegates I spoke to felt that the value of the day lay in the networking, rather than the quality of debate. Many thought there was genuine value and quality in some of the breakout sessions, but “I haven’t heard anything I didn’t already know” was a common refrain. For the most part delegates appeared accepting of this. “What else can you expect from the Arts Council?” said one person to me. Well actually, a lot more. I think that ACE is a far better organisation than this, and the people within it more intelligent and expert than they were allowed to show. Additionally, ACE expects excellence from its funded organisations, and judges them on this, with consequences; it is only fair that the sector should be able to expect quality and excellence from ACE.
But more importantly, I take great exception to the sector being pushed to take such a cynical position. This event happens once a year. The majority of delegates have been working flat-out for many months, and took a day plus travel time out of their very busy schedules, and paid to attend. Aren’t they entitled to expect more from our country’s great cultural project? Some honesty and integrity, for example, which are surely affordable even in a time of austerity? Anything less not only patronises but also insults the audience. After all, integrity is the bedrock value for most of us working in the publicly funded arts sector. It’s what drives us, and it is what drives the making of great art, yes, for everyone – as the ACE ten-year plan is so keen for us to do.