And so farewell to Dame Liz Forgan, the Arts Council’s first female chair, as well as one of its finest.
Mark Robinson has already written about the subject over at Thinking Practice with his customary eloquence and pertinence , and I’d urge you to read his post.
Mark knew Liz Forgan better than I during our time at ACE, but I would echo his comments. She was an impressive, warm and highly effective presence at precisely the time ACE needed one. My dealings with her were hugely instructive and very productive. Her sacking is as regrettable as it is risky.
It represents a huge throw of the dice for Jeremy Hunt, whose relations with the Arts Council as Culture Secretary have done little to endear him to the arts sector. The settlement DCMS obtained was poor, and Hunt’s early focus on endowments bordered on the obsessive. His settlement letter to the Arts Council in 2010 reduced the arm’s length principle to a hair’s breadth, with senior figures briefed in advance that they would ‘be alright’.
The insistence on a 50% admin cut for ACE was arbitrary and, at best it was a piece of attention-seeking from a minister seeking a promotion. (There is probably no one in the country more frustrated than Hunt that Lansley was not sacked over the NHS debacle, and that puts him at the front of a very long queue). At worst, it was an attempt to undermine an organisation which he did not have sufficient political capital to abolish. The transfer of MLA responsibilities looked, from the outside, like an afterthought – the allocation of essential responsibilities to the last NDPB standing.
And then there is the re-balancing of the Arts Council’s funding away from direct government grant to a share of proceeds from the National Lottery. This was sold as an *heroic* restoration of the original lottery percentages, and used to package the poor grant settlement for the Arts Council as a much smaller reduction in funding. Yet lottery ticket receipts are, well, a lottery, and the regulations that accompany them are more restrictive than grant-in-aid in important ways. The full extent of the change will not be clear for at least one or two more funding rounds, but whatever plays out, the sector’s funding base is less secure and less certain than it was.
Yet, while Hunt has not done much to endear himself to the sector, he is not yet wildly unpopular. Reaction to him, at least as far as I can gather, is indifferent. And for that, he has much to thank Liz Forgan for.
It is easy to find fault with some of the Arts Council’s policies and processes (we at Bad Culture have done in the past and will do again), but the organisation has played the hand Hunt dealt it with aplomb and criticism of Hunt is muted as a result. It is a stronger, more confident organisation and it has resisted the temptation to pick a fight with the Secretary of State, and has simply got on with making the best of a difficult situation. This is not only Liz Forgan’s doing, but it remains to be seen how the relationship between Hunt and the sector will play out without her at the helm of the organisation that lies between them.
One final thought. The two specific reasons Hunt gives for seeking an alternative chair – ‘the digital and philanthropy agendas’ – seem bizarre. In both cases, the Arts Council has a role to play and its Chair can make a difference. But the person who can make a far greater contribution to both areas is… Jeremy Hunt. And in both areas he has not yet delivered.
On philanthropy, the single measure that would make the most difference is now generous tax relief, and as Mark points out, the Chancellor appears to be rowing in precisely the opposite direction. Hunt’s most heralded action to date was, almost exactly a year ago, to write to the FTSE 100 Chief Executives asking them to give more money to the arts. I await the analysis of the exercise’s results with genuine interest.
And on the digital agenda, some targeted ACE funds will be nice, but what’s essential and lacking is a regulatory framework that nourishes creativity and innovation. Again this is Hunt’s domain not the Arts Council’s, and I urge you to read the other blog of my fellow Bad Culture vulture, James Firth, to get a feel for the current state of government digital policy.
Although (and this really is the final thought) I’m not sure I agree that Liz Forgan’s role at the Scott Trust as evidence of her ability to engage in the digital agenda. I recall a conference where she broke off her talk to chastise an audience member for ‘twittering’ rather than engaging with her talk more directly. It was a good-natured exchange, but very Cnut-like.
Liz Forgan is certainly not a digital native, and the Guardian’s successful entry into the interwebs should be seen in the same way as the Arts Council’s resurgence: evidence that Dame Forgan is an excellent chair who can lead organisations through difficult challenges, whatever they may be.
The arts sector may quickly rue Jeremy Hunt’s short-sightedness as, I fear, may he.
(NB This was drafted before Nick Hytner’s comments came out, but they obviously provide some additional context)