Going back to them is always interesting but hazardous.
The first reflection is that when Arts Council England (ACE) began in 1946, it was a starting point, and as such open to criticism that the wrong start was made.
Perhaps more problematic is the notion that one might start again.
Given that the money went to the patrician, Reithian vision of The Arts as being good for you (consumed), rather than an extension of the things you do (participatory), how now to view this seeming separation between church and state as intertwined with a class analysis?
Has class changed? Has the relationship between consumption and production of The Arts (and therefore participation) changed?
Well, yes and no, on both counts.
Neo-Liberalism in the wake of Thatcher has atomized society, emphasising the individual over the collective, while the internet has allowed a reconfiguration of what might be understood by community. Boundaries between production and consumption, certainly in the performing arts, have been blurred and one only has to look at the changes to say Time Out to see how the traditional mediators between the two, the specialist gatekeepers, have altered – if not disappeared. Yet the continuing search for new audiences is posited as a kind of secular Holy Grail to which all right-minded folk must surely aspire? Who is looking for what, here?
But we cannot go back (nor should we). So we must start from where we are.
My proposition might seem rather un-radical, (although it will upset David Edgar)
Britain has functioned, to some extent since the Magna Carta on a dialogue between democracy and despotism.
Top slice the major organizations (or create a Major Organisation Board as they did in Australia after the failure of the Keating administration to last longer than one term and thus implement their vision for a Creative Nation back in the mid 90s). We would thus uncouple this Reithian legacy and allow a reshaping of what remains – which is really all that there is to play for. For these major institutions are effectively untouchable, to the extent that when there is the veneer of the possibility that they might be vulnerable, the net result is always more cake required and awarded.
Both in order to move beyond too much money spent on serial consultancies while remaining in thrall to the vicissitudes of successive political administrations, and because it simply cannot afford to preserve its own vision of itself; ACE needs a new Arts compact. This would allow a grown-up relationship with the arts sector in all its depth and breadth – so not just the landscape as defined by the lucky few NPOs, But also not a landscape dominated in real cash terms by a few select big boys.
Give the DCMS these major organizations so they feel they have something to play with. Then the next time a Hytner or Serota stands up and defends the sector loudly we won’t suspect them of anything more than enlightened self-interest. Could An ACE that stands for the whole sector, and at the same time will stand up to the DCMS – untroubled by the legacy of the great and the good, deliver a new template?