(The "City" is London's financial district. It is a very small part of London as a whole)
Should we be surprised that the best-run and most critically acclaimed arts centre in Britain receives not a penny from the Arts Council? Should we be astounded that, without the benefit of a single directive from the Government’s culture quango about the importance of multiculturalism, access, diversity, outreach — or any of the other new Labour buzzwords rammed down the throats of people in the arts for the past nine years — this arts centre should nevertheless be pulling in 770,000 socially diverse punters a year? And what does this say, by inference, about the stifling effect of the nanny state on less independent organisations?
These questions popped into my head last week as the Barbican Centre in London announced plans to celebrate its 25th birthday in March with 25 brilliantly devised “landmark events”, ranging from an Icelandic epic and an Islamic festival to glitzy concerts and a celebration of punk. At the same time its management unveiled the finishing touches to a £30 million transformation that has swept away the worst features of the once-derided architecture. The hopeless non-entrance, Kafkaesque corridors, baffling signs and dry-as-dust acoustics in the concert hall: all have been remedied, leaving the place looking sleek, chic, and fit for service for at least the next 50 years.
What makes this feat close to miraculous is that, only 12 years ago, the Barbican was a byword for fear, loathing and chaos. The Royal Shakespeare Company, then resident in the centre, was locked in perpetual war with the management, which was itself chronically dysfunctional. When an abrasive woman from the Milk Marketing Board was appointed to run the centre — on the grounds that if you can sell a full range of dairy products you can surely flog King Lear — the nadir was reached. Even the City of London Corporation, which built the place, seemed in despair about its future.
But in 1995 John Tusa, a former BBC mandarin with an insatiable taste for culture, was appointed managing director, and a quiet visionary called Graham Sheffield brought in as artistic director. They have wrought a renaissance. Today, the Barbican must rank as the world’s top arts centre — easily outclassing the Lincoln Centre in New York for adventurous programming and sustained quality.
Enough about Tusa and Sheffield, however. They aren’t short of cheerleaders. What interests me about the Barbican is its funding. Its £18 million subsidy comes not from the Government via its poodle, the Arts Council — with the mandatory clump of social-engineering strings attached — but from the City of London Corporation. Which, rather astonishingly, makes that local authority the third biggest funder of the arts in Britain.
I have my dozy moments, but I’m not so naive as to think that the City is coughing up such substantial dosh out of pure altruism. In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a war going on. The Square Mile, centre of the financial universe for so long, is facing competition not just from Frankfurt and Tokyo, but from an upstart on its doorstep — Canary Wharf. The battle to retain the big bank HQs and dealing-rooms is being fought on many fronts, not least the phallic rush to erect the tallest tower in town. But one vital area is “quality of life”. And the fact that the City has an arts centre that mounts 900 top-class events a year is a huge advantage.
But the City’s motives for funding the Barbican don’t really matter. What’s important is that it doesn’t interfere in how the centre is run. It appoints top arts professionals, then lets them get on with the job. It doesn’t try to micro-manage areas beyond its competence. It liberates those it finances, rather than stifling creativity with endless red tape and petty “accountability” procedures.
Well, you can see where I’m heading. The way the Barbican is run is in stark contrast not only to every other subsidised arts organisation, but to most other areas of public life in Blair’s Britain. What we have seen over the past nine years has been an unprecedented increase in the number of political diktats that attempt to regiment every facet of our existence — from health, diet and education to the law and liberty. At the root of this trend are power mania and arrogance. We are now ruled by people who not only want to control the smallest aspects of our lives, but who are vain enough to think that they know better than the experts in any field.
Of course I accept that, in a democracy, politicians must regularly scrutinise publicly-funded professions on our behalf. But it’s a question of degree. The endless, pointless meddling of recent years has simply stopped good people doing their jobs well. I see that Gordon Brown has promised more “devolved” decision-making in future. It’s hard to believe, since under his iron rule the Treasury has broken all known records for control-freakery and arrogant interference in areas that have nothing to do with the economy — a prime instance being the way that arts organisations operate. The Barbican is a shining example of the good things that can happen when politicians keep their clumsy fingers out of the pie. Let’s see more abstinence in future.
(For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH, GREENIE WATCH, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Page. Email me (John Ray) here.)
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