Why is the Arts Council allowed to dish out millions without accountability or transparency?

The Arts Council England receives £470 million a year direct from the taxpayer. Added to its income from the national Lottery it will have received nearly £3 billion over the five years of this Parliament.  It employs 442 people, including Chief Executive Alan Davey (soon to become Controller of BBC Radio 3) who earns £157,636 pa, which is more than the Prime Minister and there are over a dozen grandly titled officials including “Director of International”.  The ACE’s role is to hand out public money to worthy arts organisations in need and its rules are meant to ensure that this is what happens. Whenever its Government handout is cut, the luvvies’ outcry of “philistines!” is deafening.

There is, however,  no way of finding out what happens to all of the £3 billion unless the ACE chooses to announce it. It does publishes a spreadsheet of the organisations which receive between £40,000 – £2.5 million a year, but beyond that – nothing. Its culture of deliberate secrecy puts government departments to shame, and its disdain for openness and transparency is, to coin a phrase, a work of art.

One striking example of its strange ways is the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park. A tiny gallery without even a collection of its own, it receives almost £1.2 million from the ACE annually. Thanks to this largesse, director Julia Peyton-Jones’s earns more than National Gallery director Nicholas Penny and nearly as much as Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota. Directors’ pay increased by over 50% in 2013, when the rest of us were tightening our belts.

This is typical, but The ACE is allowed to get away with operating behind a heavy veil of obfuscation, using our old friend “commercial sensitivity” to prevent anyone questioning their judgement and/or competence.  In June the ACE handed out £14 million worth of “emergency grants” to bail out organisations it deemed to be at “serious financial risk”.  But it announced the recipients’ identities would not be revealed  because – you guessed it – “commercial sensitivity.”

One of these grants, however, is now undermining the ACE’s determination to remain above scrutiny. In May, Richard Ingrams, then founding editor of The Oldie magazine, wrote a detailed letter to the Arts Council England informing them that a grant of £15,000 it awarded Oldie publisher James Pembroke for the Soho Literary Festival was based on an application form which was, er, economical with the truth. Contrary to what the application stated, the festival was not a worthy if struggling literary event but an integral part of The Oldie itself, a profitable dividend-paying company. The Grant Application itself was peppered with little white lies.

The ACE was clearly reluctant to act on his detailed information.  The initial complaint was ignored on the pretext that it had been addressed to the wrong person. When I started asking questions in June, I was told that the complaint had been sent to the wrong person (it was not) but has now “been passed on to a Senior Manager in the Risk Management Team who will now investigate fully all matters surrounding this.” This team has 11 staff.

As his letter had by then resulted in Ingrams being forced out The Oldie by an outraged Pembroke, my persistent inquiries resulted in another twist: “The matter will be considered under the Arts Council’s anti-fraud policy”, I was told in July. However, the ACE spokesperson added: “I am sure you understand that we are unable to provide you with feedback on the outcome of these discussions… “  *innocent face*.

Well, er, no, I could not and would not. When handing out large sums of taxpayers’ money, there is an overwhelming need for transparency and accountability, as politicians are keen to remind us at every turn. Yet the ACE is very keen to be exempt. Over four months after Ingrams first reported the alleged fraud,  the ACE deigned to answer my umpteenth inquiry by saying that “the Fraud Team has concluded its investigation”. However, the parties will have to wait up to a fortnight to be told the outcome.

It took much longer than that, and was not worth waiting for. The Arts Council investigated the Arts Council and found the Arts Council above reproach. There was nothing wrong. Wickesloads of whitewash all round.

Unconvinced, I made an FoI application for correspondence with the Oldie and within the ACE. The inevitable response was NO, the inevitable excuse: commercial confidentiality. I was told I could complain to the Chief Executive of the Arts Council, so I did.

“The Arts Council considers that disclosing the information in question would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of the applicant in question,”. I wrote. The “applicant in question” is the Soho Literary Festival 2014. By definition, that event ceased to exist once it ended last September and I fail to see how its “commercial interests” could be prejudiced.

“A further dubious reason was given that disclosure would prejudice the Arts Council’s own commercial interests since the information can be misconstrued or misinterpreted and an unfair negative inference could be drawn.” It was news to me that the Arts Council even HAS commercial interests.

“It was even more eye-popping that you are refusing to reveal information lest it be “misinterpreted” (by the wicked media, natch). That would be an excellent reason for not revealing ANYTHING EVER  and indeed for abolishing the media altogether, given their propensity to misconstrue and draw negative inferences, the naughty boys and girls.”

UPDATE: on 30 March I received a densely typed (but even more densely argued) 8-pages of balderdashI from the Acting Chief Executive. cunningly devised to make me feel foolish and go away. The new wizzo excuse was that the ACE could not disclose email exchanges about a dodgy application because it may deter future dodgy applicants from asking for handouts. This the ACE considers detrimental to the public interest.

“As a taxpayer – that is the lowly philistine who pays for your salaries and 8-page apologias – I could not agree less”, I wrote in a 10-line reply. “I happen to believe that people asking for public funds should be totally honest and open about their requests – and the YOU should be at least as open and honest about your activities, which you are clearly not, nor wish to be.

“But as you obviously do not care what I think, I will take this matter to the Information Commissioner for his adjudication.”  I am pleased to say that the commissioner is now looking into the matter..

What I found most shocking was the attitude of the Culture Department, which is responsible for the Arts Council and its considerable budget. My initial inquiry in July was met with a limp response suggesting that the ACE were in charge, not the other way round. I do not believe the ACE have any intention of changing their ways, nor that their sponsoring department has any intention of making them, for fear of the inevitable luvvies’ kneejerk outrage. Yet I believe that, given an explanation, the general public would support tougher controls.

Harry S Truman once said that “Art is parasitic on life, just as criticism is parasitic on art.” When it comes to the ACE, given its conduct in times of austerity, I’m afraid the epithet “parasite” rings true to me.

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