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Mar 7 / Simon

Moving chairs

Classical Music, March 2013
Sir Peter Bazalgette had just become chair of English National Opera when he was headhunted to take the helm at Arts Council England. As cuts are followed by further misery, why would he want to make the move, asks Simon Tait

It’s “quite ironic, in a way”, says Sir Peter Bazalgette at the coincidence of English National Opera, of which he has just given up the chairmanship, declaring its biggest deficit in recent times as he becomes chair of Arts Council England. ‘It was a poor, tough, difficult year in which we won all the opera awards but had a poor box office,’ he says.

There might be those who think that having presided over a £2.2m deficit at an Arts Council subsidised company would disqualify anyone from taking charge of the Arts Council itself, but Bazalgette is unabashed.

‘Actually, it’s given me quite an insight into what it’s like running an arts company at the moment, in that you’ve got to keep up box office and you’ve got to improve your fundraising,’ he says. He had been chair for only seven months, but on the board for eight years, deputy chairman and in charge of ENO’s fundraising in which the base of under £2m has risen to over £3.5m. ‘The way I’ve left it, this year the deficit will be halved, and everybody’s setting a very tough budget to balance it next year. So I know how tough it is out there’.

The TV executive, who had brought us Ready, Steady, Cook, Changing Rooms and, his greatest crime for some critics, Big Brother, had just taken on the chairmanship of ENO when he was headhunted for the ACE job. He was persuaded to apply and with the then culture secretary’s stated wish for someone who was convinced about arts philanthropy and part of the digital recoloution, there can have been little doubt as to whether or not he would get it.

But why would he want it? A 30% arts cut in 2011-14, more on top in 2013 and 2014, the Arts Council itself forced slash its own operation by half and a Comprehensive Spending Review due this year which promises more misery.

‘Yes I know,’ he says. ‘Cuts, reductions, difficulties, local authorities, but it’s marvellous, you know, and it’s actually a rather wonderful time to take over the Arts Council in the sense that we’d just posted the Olympics and those opening and closing ceremonies were a fantastic iteration of how world class our arts and culture is. And so, yes, it’s a tough time, but actually it’s a very exciting thing to do.’

He will be quite different from his predecessor, as no doubt Jeremy Hunt had intended, but has praise for Dame Liz Forgan. ‘The thing I was really impressed by is that, when the new government brought in a 29.6% cut (he likes to be precise), the Arts Council had previously made some changes to its national portfolio and there had been a good deal of criticism and unrest (the PR disaster of the “reinvestment” announcement of January 2009). But this was bigger, and by a process of consensus and careful planning and transparent development of the right policies, Liz Forgan and Alan Davey (the ACE’s chief executive) handled it, I thought, really well. Her legacy is to have dealt with a very difficult situation with a great deal of adroitness.’

A fundamental difference with Forgan is over the halving of the Arts Council’s administration, an issue Forgan was prepared to stand and fight over and lost. ‘It was a wholly necessary move in order to protect the arts organisations themselves as much as possible,’ Bazalgette says. ‘If it was a given that the Arts Council’s grant-in-aid would be cut by 29.6%, then restricting the National Portfolio Organisations’ to a 15% cut (a stipulation of Hunt’s to keep the worst of the pain from the front line), soaking up the rest centrally was the right response.’

So the Arts Council’s first priority under him is to make sure that in the second half of this year after it has been reorganised from eight regions to five areas, with the manpower down from 560 to 440 (‘By the way, it was about 900 ten years ago’ he adds) it is functioning.

“But writing a paper is one thing, executing it is another, and that has to happen in the next six months. We’ve got to make sure that it absolutely is doing its job well in the second half of the year.’

The other priority, he says, is to see ‘whether we can put lead in the pencil of local authorities’. Historically, councils have provided more money for the arts than the Arts Council, but that is changing dramatically with an average of 20% in proposed local government arts cuts, and some authorities, such as Westminster and Newcastle, threatening 100% cuts. Bazalgette is beginning his tenure with talks, initially with the Local Government Association and then with individual council leaders, to ‘reaffirm our desire to be in the partnership with local authorities, to partner with them to really invest in theri arts and culture and all the benefits that flow to the community from that’.

He sees two approaches, and for every Newcastle story there is a Gateshead, a council that is determined to absorb the cuts and maintain their arts commitment: there is another way.

At the other end of the spectrum is the DCMS, itself halved in size and next month moving out of its own premises to share with the Treasury. So will the department dwindle away leaving the Arts Council orphaned? Bazalgette has been on the DCMS executive advisory board.

‘There was a worry that post Olympics – such an enormous thing it had to do – that it wouldn’t still be able to stand as a ministry on its own,’ he responds. ‘But actually it’s been given extra responsibility for broadband and 4G which has made DCMS a more important ministry with economic responsibilities.

‘Our job at the Arts Council is to remind DCMS and any other politician we can get hold of that we are part of that process too.’

A gleam comes to his eye with the digital prospect, of which The Space, the Arts Council’s portal devised with the BBC, he says is only the start. Five years ago he made a speech advocating a new public service with content from arts organisations. He lobbied the BBC, and The Space resulted, and the Arts Council is now planning the next two phases. ‘The UK should have a really exciting arts pool,’ he says. ‘In the next ten years there’ll be a massive opportunity from digital to deliver lots more arts and culture to lots more people in lots of different places’.

As a donor and a fundraiser himself, Bazalgette is a committed believer in philanthropy as a source of funding with unknown potential – especially with corporate sponsorship having ‘fallen off a cliff’ – though not as a replacement for subsidy which he sees as an essential catalyst to what he calls alternative funding, taking in private philanthropy and business sponsorship. ACE will be pressed by him to develop a philanthropy strategy, but also to publicise the tax beaks available which he believes are not well enough known.

His legacy, he hopes, will be thee-pronged: to harness the digital revolution to widen audience access to the arts; to materially alter the level of financial support from the population; and to maximise the economic as well as cultural benefits of the arts.

‘Let me be clear, we don’t put money into arts and culture because we’re looking to grow the economy, we do it because of the manifest intrinsic advantages to our sense of identity, our cultural life, our educational life, our intelligence and emotional health and well being, we know those things but they need to be repeated,’ he says. ‘But the corollary of putting money into the arts is that it does have economic benefit.

‘We do fund companies that are responsible for some wonderful cultural exports, and where soft power goes goes trade, as they say.’