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Wednesday, 4 April, 2001, 11:05 GMT 12:05 UK
Arts Council chairman, Gerry Robinson quizzed

The Arts Council of England has recently announced big grant rises for some of the most prestigious arts companies in the country.

The council hopes the 100m will reinvigorate the arts in England.

Institutions such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal National Theatre and English National Ballet, as well as 25m going to regional theatres around the country.

The funding rises are part of the financial boost the council secured from the government last summer.

Is this too much money for the arts? How can the arts be improved in England?

Gerry Robinson, chairman of the Arts Council of England, joined us for a live forum on Tuesday.

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:


Highlights of transcript:

Richard Ellis, London, UK:

To what extent is funding linked to cultural impact?

Gerry Robinson:

I think by definition it has to be a fairly loose link. The more you try to define exactly what you are going to get for your money spent in the arts, the more difficult it is to do very useful things. There isn't any doubt that if one becomes aware of just how much work does happen in the regions; how much is happening in theatres, not just on the stage but with young people who go and work with artists in the theatre and young people who go to art galleries from an educational point of view. There is a whole support system which genuinely performs a role which is about trying to get as many people as possible passionate about and engaged with the arts. So there is a direct relationship but it is very difficult to tie it down.


What have elitist bodies like the English National Ballet and the Royal Opera House really contributed to this country?

Gerry Robinson:

I would like to reverse the question - I would say what civilised country do we know of that doesn't have first class opera and first class ballet in its capital city at the very least?

There is no doubt that people often feel that opera, in particular, is elitist. Extraordinarily enough, when you examine what happens around the country, even in very simplistic ways in terms of work that is happening in amateur performances, there is a lot more opera happening than people realise. So it is far less divided from the people at large than the images suggest. Nevertheless it is important that arts funding is not just seen as funding the opera and ballet but is seen about funding the arts across a very wide spectrum.

Simon Daw, Halstead, Essex, U.K:

Are small local institutions, such as local galleries, losing out in favour of the big boys - like the Royal Opera House, Welsh National Opera and these large very grand companies?

Gerry Robinson:

No, absolutely not. In fact if you look at the recent funding announcement, for the first time probably in at least 15 years and probably longer, 45 - 50 new organisations have come into regular funding at that lower level because there is more money available to the arts. At regional level there are a huge number of organisations that are supported.

There is no doubt that it is more difficult for small organisations to find the right route to approach the funding bodies. We try and make that a lot easier by having local plans that can operate both from a capital point of view and a revenue point of view at quite small numbers locally within the regions. But nevertheless I think it is a more difficult step for small organisations to find their way into the funding system. It is not the fault of the funding system so much as the way those organisations themselves simply don't know about how the funding structure works.

We are always very happy to give information out from the Arts Council itself to small organisations to give them information as to whether they are not they could be eligible for funding.


In a recent Green Paper, the Government suggested that perhaps there should be a premier league of arts institutions. If that were to go ahead, would that again be giving the big institutions more safety and security of funding rather than the smaller institutions?

Gerry Robinson:

I don't think that is the right way forward at all. I think there is a huge inter-relationship between the "grass roots" of the arts and the "pinnacle" of success in some of those large-scale arts organisations.

One of the things that I like about the British system is that you have the best of both worlds - it not just funded by Government - there is a lot of private money invested in it. But the main reason for giving government money, I think, is to make things happen both at a small and regional level as well as the major projects and there should be a movement between the two in quite a free and easy way.

Matthew Shilvock, Amherst, Massachusetts, USA:

Public funding for the arts is becoming increasingly marginalised in the US. Does the British government have a commitment to sustaining its role in helping the arts?

Gerry Robinson:

One of the problems in America is that you have got just private funding in any serious way - there is very little government involvement. The trouble with this is that you do get the big institutions well funded because companies and individuals like to align their names with great opera houses or great art galleries. But small things happening in the regions - small artists, ideas and plans coming through - those find it very difficult to get corporate funding and that is why it is important to keep government funding going.

I believe the record of this Government is very good. We have just had 100 million increase from 237 million to 337 million in funding per annum - that is a very significant increase as well as an additional 200 plus million from the Lottery. I think this Government has shown a very good commitment to the arts.


You have agreed to stay on for an extra three years as chairman and you have spoken about levering even more money from the Government. At what stage will you be happy that the arts in England are being funded adequately?

Gerry Robinson:

I think it is something of the measure of value that government has for its role in society is its level of funding in the arts. We have moved a long way but I think we are still a long way short of where we should be. If we compare ourselves to other "civilised countries" we are low in the league - we are low in the league in Europe. I want to see this first step - which is a major step - carried on in future years.


Recently you announced an extra 25 million for regional theatre which was seen as a much needed boost for them. However, not all theatres were successful - the Warehouse in Croydon wasn't able to get more money from you. Timothy Godfrey and Councillor Martin Tiedeman, both from Croydon, ask why didn't the Warehouse Theatre get extra money?

Gerry Robinson:

I think it is important to put it in context - of 190 plus theatres, one didn't receive additional funding and inevitably those people who didn't receive it are unhappy.

There are very particular issues around Croydon. First of all, it is still on-going - there are talks going on with London Arts to see if there is a way of funding some of Croydon's work. There is a question mark over Croydon's base. There is no likelihood of that being solved within the funding period and therefore it simply couldn't be addressed in the normal way. There was no wish to particularly single out Croydon or the theatre in any way in fact we believe that quite a lot of decent work has been done there. But there was a specific issue about its base that we could not overcome within that funding period.

Cllr Martin Tiedemann, London Borough of Croydon:

What plans do the Arts Council have to continue to put right regional differences in the Arts Council and within Arts funding in general?

Gerry Robinson:

As you can imagine there are always huge debates about where the money goes and whether it is fairly distributed. What we have tried to do is to be fair in two ways. Firstly to reward excellence in the arts themselves - that is key principle that what we are backing is of high quality.

Secondly, there are issues of deprivation without a shadow of doubt in certain areas and it is certainly true that the arts can act as a regenerative starting point. They are all dependent on the quality of project that comes forward - we really do want to back quality and have some mind to the fairness geographically. But it is secondary in a way to the quality of request that comes forward both artistically and in terms of the sustainability of the project.


Recently plans were announced to restructure the Arts Council and the Regional Arts Boards around England. Can you explain what that change will mean and will it change the regional differences that are perceived to be in arts?

Gerry Robinson:

I think it will do a number of things. Firstly, it will make the Arts funding body one organisation which means all the improvements in terms of speed of response etc. Artists should be able to deal with one organisation and know what its aims and objectives are.

Secondly, it will reduce the cost of the organisation - it is a very costly business as it stands. We spend 36 million administering the arts - to my mind that is far too much and therefore there is a need to tighten up what we do. What it will not do is remove from the regions their absolute involvement and detailed decision-making in terms of money spent in the regions. It is very easy to see this as a centrist policy - it is not - it is about making an organisation which is genuinely national, which has it's tentacles right into the regions and is informed by and makes it's decisions by those information routes but is singular rather than multi-structured as it is now.


But won't some element of their autonomy that they have at the moment to make decisions be removed because they will be influenced from the centre?

Gerry Robinson:

It is very difficult to get the balance right on these things. You still have to have the right structure in the region to inform you of what is important in the region - certainly we see a number of ways that that can very easily be achieved with regional bodies which still inform, advise and very much act as information-gathering devices for that region. I think it is the best of both worlds - a simple system but one which genuinely deals with what happens in the regions.

Sue Thomas, Nottingham Trent University, UK:

Organisations like my own are going through a dynamic period of experimentation and expansion in digital and online arts, which has been very much encouraged and supported by the Arts Council. But all this new work is developing so fast, and is often so ephemeral, that it can be difficult and expensive to document and archive them. Will the Arts Council make it possible for these ground-breaking works to be properly archived and catalogued for the use of future artists and arts historians?

Gerry Robinson:

We have recently launched Arts Online. We are very interested in this, not just as a method of disseminating the arts but actually as a methodology for art itself. So I know that quite a lot of work going on at the Arts Council in this whole arena to make sure that we do trap and capture works that are transient in nature within our own system. I believe we are two or three years away from being happy that what we are doing is adequate.


You have been in the job for three years. What changes have you seen within the Arts Council and within the Arts itself over that time?

Gerry Robinson:

I came to this job from outside the Arts. I was perceived to be someone who had a business background and had come in to sort it all out and maybe even close it down. My background in fact has been very helpful because what I have found is that by and large it is a group of organisations doing their level best to survive with inadequate funding. I am not saying there are not inefficiencies because of course there are but the overwhelming experience was that people were really working very hard with limited funds. Part of my own capacity to deliver additional funds was the fact that I was from outside - I wasn't some "whingeing lovey" saying yet again how terrible it was but somebody calmly saying - "Come on, we are just not doing enough here".

So I think an increase in funding and a reduction in bureaucracy has been hugely helpful to the Arts. I think we are enjoying a time when a lot of the Lottery money has started to come through. We are having a wonderful time in the Arts and I think it should get better and better.


How do you measure the success of the Arts Council?

Gerry Robinson:

I don't think one should get too hung up about trying to measure hard-nosed results about the amount of money we are spending. The Mrs Thatcher argument that there is no society, I don't buy at all. It is important that what you put into society has an impact which is often not financial. I think it is important doing something because we know it is right rather than trying to get an economic return from it or even a return that we can measure in some kind of hard-nosed way.

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See also:

22 Mar 01 | Arts
Cash boost for arts
15 Mar 01 | Entertainment
Radical shake-up at Arts Council
08 Mar 01 | Entertainment
Theatres share in 25m windfall
08 Mar 01 | Entertainment
Theatres: The agony and the ecstasy
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