The Evil Imp

Al Capone Economics

Last week, Arts Professional revealed that one of Arts Council England’s senior employees, Andrea Stark (Executive Director), had left her position with the funding monolith for pastures new at the High House Production Park in Essex.

The chairman of that organisation is Tony Hall, the former CEO of the Royal Opera House, recipients of tens of millions in pounds of funding from ACE.

Such news would normally be unremarkable but this particular job shift was accompanied by the revelation that Ms Stark was still being paid her rather hefty salary of over £150,000 as she was, technically, on “sabbatical” from ACE.

Ok, so now it’s starting to get weird. AP also pointed out that after Ms Stark’s sabbatical comes to an end in July she will then qualify for an estimated £100,000 in severance pay.

On the face of it it would appear ACE granted Ms Stark her “sabbatical” so she could receive the six figure severance package. A convenient technical construction, engineered for little more than personal financial gain.

That’s How You Get Capone

ACE of course denied any suggestion of impropriety. Through a spokesperson they claimed that Ms Stark’s move was justified in support of the funding monolith’s key goals in achieving “great art for everyone”.

To anyone on the outside of the ACE bubble though it appears to be nothing more than people in positions of power looking out for their own to secure large sums of money for themselves and others.

Article19 asked ACE if senior staff members should be contractually forbidden from taking employment with any organisations that may be connected to their own funding decisions for a period of at least two years.

The Arts Council is a porous organisation which works extremely closely with the arts and culture sector as you know. Many members of staff throughout the organisation come to us from within the sector and bring with them their expertise and a working understanding of what the sector and arts organisations need and how they function. This ultimately is a great benefit to us but the advantages go both ways. In turn, when Arts Council staff enter the arts and culture workforce they go with a strong understanding of the political nature of the sector and how best to engage with the Arts Council in order to communicate needs within it. This knowledge sharing only makes the arts and cultural sector stronger and it would be a shame to implement any restrictions which would result in this coming to an end.

Such restrictions are not unusual. US politicians (Congressman and Senators) are forbidden from becoming lobbyists for an extended period after they leave office. This is, in theory, to prevent the possibility of elected officials manipulating policy to favour their own future job prospects.

They Send One Of Yours To The Hospital

Perhaps the most difficult part of this situation to reconcile, for most rational people, is the fact that ACE did not see this problem coming from 100 miles away.

It reminds us, here in TheLab™, of the situation that arose when New Adventures and Mathew Bourne awarded a substantial cash prize to two former employees. Many failed to see the very obvious ethical conflict and just how easily it could have been avoided.

If you want to avoid the appearance of impropriety, the appearance of ethical and, in extreme cases, actual corruption then don’t do things that look corrupt.

A senior employee from a funding provider moving to a new company, the chairman of which is also the CEO of a major ACE client, looks corrupt. It doesn’t matter what anybody says or how ACE tries to spin the story because it will always look corrupt.

When you add to the mix the fact that Ms Stark is still being paid by her former employer, so ACE is essentially subsidising another company to employ one of their own staff members, you think it can’t get any worse or look any more suspect.

Until you factor in the substantial severance pay that Ms Stark will receive after her “sabbatical” is over. Anybody with a half an ounce of cogent thought will surmise that the whole thing was a set up between friends so somebody could get a payoff.

You Send One Of Theirs To The Morgue

The solution to this problem for ACE is clear. Ms Stark’s “sabbatical” needs to be ended immediately and any prospect of receiving her severance package should be nothing but a distant dream.

She should also repay any money she has received from ACE since leaving her job. Money which would be replaced by the salary she should be getting paid by her current employer.

ACE should also apologise unreservedly for once again being completely tone deaf in the face of the ludicrous cuts they have been imposing on everybody while offering up nothing more than a withering defence against the onslaught.

This is one of those situations where ACE could actually gain some yardage by enacting some strong leadership and by taking decisive action.

Sadly however, those phrases are not in the ACE playbook.

At the time of writing Arts Council England had not responded to further questions put to them by Article19 regarding this matter.

Update 23-01-2013:

In a belated response to further questions ACE admitted that Ms Stark was involved in funding decisions connected to the Royal Opera House including the most recent decision that awarded the London theatre £10Million for refurbishment. They stated their own strict “governance” policies as being sufficient to prevent any suggestion of impropriety.

Ms Stark was one of the staff members who was set to lose her job with the funding body because of the DCMS enforced re-structuring. Arts Council England declined to speculate on what the public reaction would be to news of Ms Starks “sabbatical” and the subsequent tax payer cost of the move.

[ Arts Professional : Andrea Stark ]