The Evil Imp

Fire Breathing Dragons

Arts Council England (the funding monolith) is all set for a big shakeup this coming January as their long(ish) term CEO Alan Davey packs up his John Lewis tie collection and moves on to pastures new at the BBC to run a radio station that nobody ever talks about.

To say that Mr Davey’s time in charge of the Big Bad was distinguished would be an understatement. It would also be a lie of Pinnochio like proportions.

During his tenure ACE has lost hundreds of millions of pounds in funding and the man, who looks like he has spent his entire life in one meeting or another, has watched all of this happen with barely a whimper of protest.

ACE is supposed to operate independently of the government of the day but given the paucity of outrage from its CEO concerning the repeated cuts to their budget over the years we’re not entirely sure “good old Alan” wasn’t actively encouraging the axe wielding from the shadows.

Far from being critical or outspoken Mr Davey simply shrugged his shoulders and spun the coalition government party line on their behalf.

The only time we witnessed any real emotion from the man was during his far too infrequent appearances before the Department for Culture Media and Sport Select Committee hearings where Mr Davey would become very red in the face at the mere suggestion that ACE wasn’t the most awesome thing in the whole wide world, ever!

Mr Davey’s idea of public accountability was sitting in front of a computer answering pre-screened questions with pre-written answers in an online chatroom once or twice a year. Another favourite pass time was appearing at conferences, like “No Boundaries” (funded by ACE) where the Funding Monolith was in charge of the agenda and no questions were allowed from the plebs in the public gallery.

You always got the impression that the incumbent CEO was “passionate” about the arts for no other reason than it was in his job description and his £200,000 per-year salary required it.

Mr Davey was passionate about the arts in the same way a marketing drone from Apple is passionate about a new cell phone.

As cuts rained down on the arts in general Mr Davey actively participated in the ridiculously wasteful largesse of “digital” projects funded through ACE’s “strategic funds” budget. Millions wasted on TheSpace project and the yet to launch YouTube channel are all the evidence you need that Alan Davey was a poor steward of the arts and the organisation that’s supposed the champion them.

We feel certain that Mr Davey belongs in middle management at a local branch of Tesco where his clipboard management style would be more appropriate and less damaging. As long as you can find the biscuits, nobody cares how supermarkets are run.

His final kick to the ribs, for the wide world of dance at least, was to be party to awarding Mathew Bourne’s New Adventures £1.3Million in annual funding while local dance services, already on tiny budgets, received more cuts. A tip of the hat and a wink to mediocre creative thinking if ever there was one.

Safe to say that Mr Davey will not be missed and there is even less chance he will be remembered.

New Blood

It’s likely that the replacement at ACE for Alan Davey will be just as inert as he was. A zero personality middle manager walking on egg shells to protect their salary and their pension and, probably, their future job prospects with another large scale organisation when they get bored with all the meetings.

What ACE needs and what ACE is going to get are not the same thing however.

So what do they need, what characteristics are not mentioned in the banal job description?

First of all it would be useful if the CEO of the Arts Council, an organisation dedicated to the funding and promotion of the arts across an entire country, had a discernible personality. Communication is a big part of any job and coming across as a human being is very important.

When you’re trying to enthuse people about something it’s a good idea for the person doing the enthusing to sound, you know, enthused!

Please note that wearing a pink shirt and brightly coloured socks does not mean you have a personality. It just means you’re desperate for attention.

It would also be useful if the new CEO had spent some time in the trenches actually dealing with ACE’s, borderline sociopathic, bureaucracy. Only somebody who has dealt with the funding monolith from the outside really understands the irritations and frustrations that need to swept away.

The new boss also needs the courage to stand-up to the political drones at the DCMS. Arts Council England is not a part of the government and the government is not allowed, in theory, to interfere with what they do.

It would be helpful if the incoming CEO was able to rally the public and the press behind a coherent and genuinely passionate argument about the arts and culture and why they should be funded properly and fairly across the entire country. They don’t just need to say it though, they need to really believe it.

That argument needs to be translated into a coherent national funding policy that benefits the arts across the country, not just the few large-scale cry babies in London and other places that have declared themselves to be the holy grail of all that is culture.

Change does not come often enough with organisations like Arts Council England. There is an opportunity here to make sweeping changes, to make ACE nimble and responsive, to turn ACE into a ferocious fire breathing dragon that fights for the arts and the people that make the arts work. To turn ACE into an organisation that will take some chances, make mistakes, admit those mistakes and learn from them.

It’s not about shouting and being controversial just for the sake of it. It’s about doing what needs to be done. It’s about understanding that you can’t be friends with everybody and that nothing really gets decided in meetings.

At this point in time ACE needs to best and brightest. The beige carpet has left the building…. what’s next?

image by baltasar vischi