The arts cuts are coming. They will be cruel, harsh and short-sighted, as arts cuts always are. The fact that they are to be administered by someone as untested on the cultural front line as Jeremy Hunt makes the autumn ahead feel extra-scary.
A brief glance at our latest secretary of state for culture, Olympics, media and sport suggests that he is not an arty type. Rather, we have before us a sleek specimen of Homo managementus consultus, a species that grows in offices and feeds chiefly on whiteboard inks. Indeed, that is exactly what Hunt used to be: a management consultant.
But he rebelled and fled to Japan, where, apparently, he learnt the language and fell in love with the people. So all is not lost. He has imagination.
Hunt’s ruthless side has already been displayed with some predictable swipes at the BBC. The threat to cut the licence fee in the years ahead was coalition nastiness at its prerecorded worst. My own view remains that the BBC is the most powerful force for cultural good in modern Britain. Without Auntie, there would be nobody in the media resisting the relentless X-Factorisation of every aspect of contemporary broadcasting, and Paris Hilton might now be reading the news. Only the health service can match the BBC as an immense national achievement.
The pashas at the top, however, clearly pay themselves too much. And several stratums of unnecessary management could happily be removed without any impairment of the decision-making.
The actual production of BBC programmes, on the other hand, grows ever more expensive. Any attack on the licence fee would translate quickly into an attack on arts programming. The worst approach that Hunt could adopt in October would be to seek to achieve his huge 25% reductions with thousands of tiny nibbles. Which is what management consultants tend to do. The snipping off of the art world’s protruding highlights, with a particularly enthusiastic snip of the BBC’s licence fee saved up for later, would turn our splendidly messy national afro of the arts into a featureless baldy cut. Better, I suggest, to counter the economic tsunami with a few sizeable hacks.
As the culture secretary is so new to culture, I selflessly offer him a couple of big ideas. The first is almost too obvious to repeat, but people seem nervous of saying aloud what they are always muttering in private, so let me shout it out: get rid of the Arts Council. Whatever we donate to this huge grey uber-quango seems to seep away into the sludge of mediocrity. I do not remember the last occasion on which anything the council organised felt as if it had a real impact on the nation’s arts. My second and even better suggestion concerns my preferred territory: the art world. This is difficult advice to pass on, because as soon as you raise the subject in museum company, the cultured professionals in attendance turn on you like rhodesian ridgebacks.
I am thinking of what is known in museum circles as “de-acquisitioning”, but what the rest of us understand as “selling some pictures”.
Right now, the art market is so perversely buoyant that this is probably the best time ever for Britain’s museums and art galleries to look calmly at their collections and see what they can lose.
If our museums possessed nothing that was unnecessary, I would shout the loudest in their defence. But that simply isn’t the case. The British Museum displays only a fraction of what it owns: the rest lies mouldering in overcrowded stacks and never sees the light of civilisation. Tate Modern is just as bad: so energetically does it keep circulating its goodies, no man has ever been able to walk through the same Tate Modern twice. Huge slabs of its holdings are never shown properly. As for the V&A, you could fill two dozen new museums with the fine stuffs languishing in its basement.
Mention “de-acquisitioning” to gallery types, however, and you trigger an immediate cascade of nos and nevers. It’s illegal, they scream, pointing at the antiquated national rule book, as if the laws of the land can never be changed. Once you commence, they shiver, you will never cease.
Which is nonsense. American museums have never had any difficulty organising the occasional de-acquisitioning of their under-employed possessions. And the resulting sales do not appear to have weakened them or left them naked.
The relinquishing of a few carefully chosen items does not constitute an irreversible slide into heroin addiction.
Besides, the manic collecting sprees that created these vast national hoards in the first place were never undertaken solely for fine civilisational reasons. Pure colonial greed was a factor, too. We were rich; others were not. So we took, bought and bartered what we wanted.
Today’s special economic circumstances call for special aesthetic measures. If Tate Modern sold, say, Picasso’s Three Dancers, it could fetch £150m or more at auction, and the takings might keep the gallery buoyant for the entire economic cycle ahead. Of course, it’s a great Picasso. But on most occasions when I have trekked to the Tate to see it, it was not even on show. So determinedly transient are the experiences created by the Tate’s irritating policy of relentlessly revolving its displays that it might be many years before anyone even notices the Picasso has gone.
The National Gallery, meanwhile, owns 13 Raphaels. Which is ridiculous. Nobody needs 13 Raphaels. The tiny Madonna of the Pinks, “saved for the nation” so noisily for £22m, is not even definitely by him. Sell half the Raphaels at Sotheby’s and you could cover the museum’s running costs for a decade. The surplus can be spread among our provincial museums, which could do with the help.
As for Tate Britain, does it really need all those Turners? Striding through a dozen galleries filled only with his work is weirdly unpleasurable. Has anyone tried it recently? Not for one moment am I suggesting Turner was a lesser artist, or that we should not be grateful for the riches he left to the nation, but piling it all up does him no favours. The Clore needs a haircut as keenly as the nation needs a cash injection. And yes, I know about the terms of his bequest, and how they would need to be challenged. But, as my old mother used to say, don’t catch someone else’s ball. Turner had his reasons for leaving his pictures to the state; we have our reasons for selling some of them.
A few judicious decisions of this heft could generate enough funds to keep our museums open every day during the dark months ahead, fully staffed and optimistic about the future. The free access that makes our museums so gloriously welcoming could continue. Of course, these would not be easy decisions to make. A responsible board of judges from outside the museum system, passionate about art but deaf to the squealing of overstocked museums, needs to be appointed. I would be happy to sit on such a board.