Simon Jenner on

the Sacking of ACE Chair Liz Forgan

Dames and Pantomimes

Registering my shock, dismay indeed anger that Dame Liz Forgan has been sacked after just one term as one of the brightest and ablest incumbents of the ACE Chair is almost superfluous. That and all the arts world’s general reaction please take as read.

I cut to this. The reasons Jeremy Hunt has given for Dame Liz Forgan’s departure as Chair of the Arts Council is twofold: that he wishes a new Chair to concentrate on the new digital revolution in the arts world that Forgan was so successfully pursuing, along with her skill in managing the cuts imposed by government which she will have to hand on dauntingly halfway-through to a successor. And that, crucially, Hunt wishes to appoint a Chair with a more pro-active stance on attracting arts sponsorship.

This is a muddled justification of a political decision. But to address the nub of Hunt's reasoning: Sponsorship American-style was addressed at the State of the Arts Conference which he, Dame Liz and many of us attended; and renewed debate with subsequent State of the Arts Conferences. Hunt then had no answer to caveats raised by Americans who’d tried it, statistics that proved it was dropping off drastically, and that we in the UK have no embedded culture to grow it. Like lottery money, such sponsorship goes to the sports (think Russian billionaires and Chelsea). Hunt was less willing to hear this subsequently, so didn’t attend the 2012 conference: but had no answers.

If Hunt, or indeed the Arts Council, wish to address the (Rockefeller) pilot model for this, Arts & Business, then its Director Colin Tweedy’s address on October 12th 2010 to Committee Room 8 during the DCMS hearing - which I also attended - gives us pause. An update from A&B on 29th February this year (via Hollis Sponsorship Bulletin/Guardian) confirms the opposite of what the government wants to hear:

‘Business sponsorship of the arts has fallen for the fourth year in a row to £134.2 million according to just-released figures from Arts & Business; however the figures show a slight overall growth in private sector investment in culture to £686 million thanks to individual giving which has grown to £382.2m and income from Trusts and Foundations which has increased to £170.3m.’

81% of this went to the capital, something ACE has tried to avoid, which the government fails to understand, interested only in cherry-picking the Royal Opera House and flagship entertainments they themselves attend, the very few institutions they feel proves prove that art is healthy, and which hoover nearly all the sponsorship going (think the excellent Bridge Project at the Old Vic; but that was just five plays). Promising dining rights at No. 10, David Cameron might persuade some of his ‘very old’ friends to turn a greater investment from the arts than party coffers confer. Such people did so in America till vey recently, and might just again given the U.S. up-turn.

It’s unlikely though. Given the government’s lack of tax-incentive, unlike the American model, citing an American-style business giving is a contradiction. Sadly business sponsorship isn’t going to catch on in this climate. Tax reform in this alone would make a difference. Again Forgan understood the difference; her successor won’t be allowed to know more than Hunt.

Such brutal headlining in sponsorship and government recalls how eager the 1980s Conservative administration was to centralize far more than Labour (pace Thatcher, pace Cameron) and dictate: cut a London orchestra, leave ROH governance to uz. Health is recycled Lloyd Webber and the Purcell Room is heaven. That’s culture. If South London grows restless, throw it a crime-stopping theatre project for £20,000. That’s permitted sub-culture. Despite propaganda, it isn’t Labour and the left that dictate in the arts; this government has bared its teeth. It reads revenge: less Lives of the Artists and more The Lives of Others.

The government wields no real policy (merely politics) in dismissing Forgan. More widely, her successor – just possibly Veronica Wadley, Boris’s friend and Chair ACE London? - will thus prove more accommodating to government thinking, more hostile to the arts. This not only damages the arts’ confidence, with all that entails for real arts generation of wealth and excellence; but almost certainly proves less productive than Forgan in attracting sponsorship.

Lyn Gardner in The Guardian suggested Forgan’s love of artists and the arts beyond ROH ‘really did it for her’ with Ed Vaisey and Hunt who have little time for art and less for artists. Forgan commented at the Lowry in February: ‘I've never met an artist who set out to work with their pen, paintbrush or piano with the sole aim of contributing to the creative economy... Great art isn't about economics.’ If that spelt Forgan’s departure, then everything we learned in the Bowden Report from 2000 has been lost: that art generates wealth. That by pursuing its own ends with integrity it turns more profit than many a bank.

Hunt is a man of some mild decency and principle betrayed by Cameron into roles where he has little opportunity to shine his polished speeches. Does he, before his elevation to the NHS-poisoned chalice of Andrew Lansley's post, really want to be remembered for two things? His pusillanimous refusal - till forced to back off - from Rupert Murdoch’s bear-hugging BSkyB license? And his sacking of one of the ablest Arts Council Chairs of recent times? Cruelly put, his record is of cravening-in to Murdoch; and now to his colleagues to the right, who seem to have forced him to this latest action and to stamp the government’s own doleful, even inchoate, identity on the arts. In the wake of this moral collapse he sticks the stiletto into someone he had personally warm relations with. Both actions will expose such weaknesses to his opponents. I predict the poisoned chalice and stiletto from his friends.

Now that’s artspeak caricature, Guardian Sancerre-swilling language: alas no less true for all that. I have sympathy for the erudite Hunt and liked him on meeting; but he must be alert to his long-term legacy. Cameron is adept in sidelining slightly cleverer - and in Nick Hurd’s case, better-looking – colleagues into dead-end portfolios. Hunt and Hurd’s names may mirror more than their closeness in the MP’s register; they’ll shiver when the wreckage of Lansley wafts past.

Simon Jenner © 2012
Poet and critic Simon Jenner is Director of Survivors' Poetry and Founding Editor of Waterloo Press