Clearing political hurdles

Labour’s newish culture spokeswoman, the former professional cellist Thangam Debbonaire, has piped up to condemn her opposite number’s vaunted White Paper as “nothing new”, and the less niggardly than expected review settlement as a red herring to “distract from more damaging cuts to local government funding”, because councils' easiest resort for savings is their cultural budget.


She’s right, of course, though a little slow off the mark, and as ENO for one is finding it isn’t easy to rebalance when you're hit by a subsidy torpedo or a bureaucratic brain shutdown.
But subsidy cut isn’t the end, as the British Council has proved, if you have the confidence of your own sector in what you do. In 2007 - before the recession so not austerity-led – it was decided the BC's bosses to abandon the arts, witching to something called "cultural dilplomacy". A skirmishing party of luminaries including Antony Gormley, Bridget Riley and Anish Kapoor ambushed the then CEO, followed by the big guns of the then foreign secretary, got a Damascene conversion, a rethink and eventually a five year plan under a new director of arts, Graham Sheffield. By then, 2011, with a quarter of its income coming from the government, recession was in full slump with BC being handed a 5% cut of £10m – passed on to the arts operation - at which point it was worth 22% of the council’s budget; another £9m was lopped in 2013, £8m in 2014, but which time it was worth just 16% of income.
Yet in Sheffield’s five year plan his income has gone up by 30%, with funding coming in from internationally funded schemes the BC arts department has joined, client fees, sponsorship and earnings.
The quality of the creativity and arts we make is sought after as it always has been, but the means of delivering it overseas has changed. “It's not just a case of firing UK culture at distant parts of the world” Sheffield says. “It’s about mutual respect and engaging laterally”. That means our artists and arts organisations going to places like Nigeria, Mexico, China, India, you name it, and working with theirs and using British know-how to produce something that works there. It’s no longer a case of shipping out the Gilbert & Sullivan and expecting audiences whose first language is Hindi, say, to lap it up – one of the most successful recent ventures has been a production of Two Noble Kinsmen in Abuja, Nigeria, delivered in pidgin.
It’s not always easy to steer around political exigencies, though. Since his appointment in 2011 the outgoing director of the Wallace Collection, Christoph Vogtherr, has had an ongoing battle with politicians and civil servants and the stream of missives he gets from them. “In none of these is art ever mentioned” he said last year, all his correspondents are interested in is income earning strategies and tourist footfall. “There’s no acknowledgement of museums’ contribution to the health of society and the wellbeing of its citizens”. Then his board, which normally picks the chair from its own number, was overridden by 10 Downing Street who parachuted in a Portuguese banker with no background in the arts at all. Today he greeted the appointment of Vogtherr’s successor with the hope that he and the new man could work well together “as we continue to ensure the financial stability of the museum”.

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