February 24, 2013 10:36 pm

From reality TV to reality of arts funding

Peter Bazalgette©Rosie Hallam

The Arts Council will be forced to pull its funding for threatened arts bodies if local authorities press ahead with planned cuts to the sector, the new chairman of the funding body has warned.

Sir Peter Bazalgette, the man credited with unleashing reality television on to British screens, this month took up one of the UK’s most prominent arts jobs at a time of intense financial pressure for local councils. Faced with unpalatable budgetary choices, some councils have threatened 100 per cent cuts in arts funding – a decision Sir Peter called a “terrible mistake” that would destabilise their co-funding relationships with Arts Council England.

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“What we say to local authorities is we are your partners. If you cut all your funding, we haven’t got the money to replace it, so you’re putting your organisations in jeopardy,” he tells the Financial Times in an interview at ACE’s Westminster offices.

Against this unpromising backdrop, Sir Peter’s chief task in his £40,000 a year part-time role will be to make the strongest possible case for the arts to central and local government.

Some think that “Baz”, as he is known, is ill-suited to the role. As the man who brought Big Brother to UK television, he has been accused of dumbing down British culture.

But his CV includes stints in positions of high cultural respectability: chairman of English National Opera, president of the Royal Television Society, a Bafta fellowship and board membership of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Dressed in a checked Paul Smith suit set off with trademark lurid socks, the 59-year-old media entrepreneur has a raffish approachability far removed from the image of the great-and-good arts supremo. His commercial sensibility, though, is precisely what some believe is needed among arts organisations accustomed to a flow of subsidies.

Sir Peter argues that the 695 so-called “national portfolio organisations” that receive the bulk of ACE funding are already committed to raising their commercial game. He says corporate sponsorship, revenues and fundraising, rather than state handouts, now account for 70 per cent of their income, up from about 50 per cent in 1990.

But he wants to see cultural bodies do more to exploit the possibilities of digital marketing and distribution, which win wider audiences at minimal cost. A big fan of live cinema screenings such as from the Royal Opera House or the National Theatre, he is also an adviser to The Space, an experimental online venue for arts set up by the BBC and Arts Council.

“I know from my own experience in TV that it’s one thing to make a piece of content, it’s another to get people to find it,” he says.

His enterprising zeal may be in tune with the Conservative-led government that appointed him. But any commercial gains should not be seen as a licence for further cuts, he says: “The government money that goes in, even though it is one-third, is the vital venture investment that unlocks the rest.”

As an “immediate priority”, he is plotting a tour of UK regions over the next six months to gird the loins of local authorities that may be wavering in their support of arts. He will be pointing to exemplars such as Gateshead, Bristol and Liverpool, which he says recognise the “utter revitalising effects that arts institutions have on a locality”.

He will also need to push through ferocious cuts to ACE initiated by Dame Liz Forgan, his predecessor.

The government has slashed its grant-in-aid funding by nearly 30 per cent over four years to about £360m a year, and said it must reduce its own administrative costs by half.

Staff numbers will fall to 440, a halving over the past decade, and the organisation is merging its 8 regions into 5 to save money.

Does this unenviable context make the job something of a poisoned chalice? Not a bit of it, Sir Peter says, effervescing with enthusiasm. “What turns me on are new ideas. I have always backed up new ideas and what could be more wonderful than chairing the Arts Council – because that’s exactly what it does.”

 

In tune with Keynes

 

What would Keynes have made of it? The illustrious economist and postwar founder of the Arts Council might have been surprised by the elevation of reality TV champion Sir Peter Bazalgette to one of the country’s most eminent arts roles.

But Sir Peter, having listened to a recording of Keynes’s 1945 radio speech on the new body, feels solidly in tune with the arts philosophy of the heavyweight who was part of the Bloomsbury set.

The economist’s vision of art as something to be relished by all, not prescribed by cultural guardians from on high, resonates most clearly with the man who created highly popularised TV formats such as Changing Rooms and Ready Steady Cook.

“Do not think of the Arts Council as a schoolmaster. Your enjoyment will be our first aim,” he quotes Keynes.

Is he a Keynesian himself? “We’re all Keynesians in an era of quantitative easing,” he suggests, somewhat evasively. But asked if he would call for a new infusion of money directly into the arts, he is measured.

“Obviously we have to be realistic . . . we’ve just had a spending review where every government department was cut. But what I say to anyone who will listen is that the arts accounts for half a pence in every £1,000 of government spending – and delivers a massive reward.”

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