Some history on the Arts Council

As Pictures for Schools exhibitions received funding from the Arts Council, I have been doing some reading about its history and development to understand some of the context of funding and state patronage in the post-war period. I have found some interesting things to bear in mind, for example how cultural experiences and official support for the arts was mediated by the choices and decisions of those in charge of the Arts Council, who were often seen to represent a fairly elite portion of metropolitan society. This also ties in with ideas of expertise, and the type of people who were seen as fit to serve on such bodies (usually those with an amateur rather than professional interest in art) and be consulted about the type of culture suitable for consumption by the modern British public. The information below was gleaned from two texts: ‘Cultured into Crisis: The Arts Council of Great Britain’ by Jonathan Harris, in Art Apart: Art Institutions and Ideology Across England and North America (edited by Marcia Pointon), and Arts and Cultures: The History of the 50 Years of the Arts Council of Great Britain by Andrew Sinclair. It is amazing how two texts on the same topic can give such a different impression of a subject: Harris paints a critique of the Arts Council as a cautious and reactionary institution, whereas Sinclair details at great length a heroic organisation which is the envy of the rest of Europe.

The Arts Council of Great Britain was a major enabler for the arts in post-war Britain. Its formation in 1945 as a quango under Royal Charter from the monarch, at the same time as the welfare state was being set up, indicated that art was considered worthy of receiving public funding along with essential social benefits such health service and housing. Set up with the purpose of developing a greater knowledge, understanding and practice of the fine arts and improving the standard of their execution, the Arts Council grew out of a growing realisation during the Second World War that Britain had a national culture which was worth defending. The Arts Council also took on an advisory role, working with government departments, local authorities and other bodies. It was structured around committees comprising a mixture of professional administrators and private individuals with amateur or informal interests in the arts. As these people were not paid, this tended to favour those who could afford to work without a salary, leading to accusations of a socially homogenous organisation with members drawn from a relatively narrow section of society; officers and advisors were mostly based in the South East, close to the Arts Council’s location in London. As the government also chose the chairman and all other members, this led to further accusations of members being broadly supportive of the government’s political and ideological principles and policies, and a lack of transparency in decision-making.

Other criticisms levelled at the Arts Council included a lack of definition of the ‘fine arts’, and that the Council has tended to represent a certain type of media and practitioners over others. For instance, visual arts have always received a small amount of funding compared with drama, music and literature. Supporting only professional cultural activities, the Arts Council started by aiding the best that had already developed in the metropolis and the regions (Sinclair) rather than nurturing new talent. At first, a large part of the Arts Council’s work involved managing its own touring exhibitions, with large grants made to around 15 prestigious galleries, mainly in metropolitan areas such as London, which could be seen to share its values and standards. During the 1960s and 1970s, however, a number of regional organisations comprising amalgamations of local government bodies, specialised arts clubs and other associations of people with interests in a wide variety of cultural activities were established and began to seek funding from the Arts Council. They were later officially recognised as Regional Arts Associations.

One thing I found it hard to get a sense of was the Regional Arts Associations which formed later in the post-war period: what type of people were involved in these Regional Arts Societies, how they operated, and the kinds of activities they supported at a local level. Gaining more understanding of how this network of regional arts bodies operated could be relevant as my project will look at Pictures for Schools on two levels: how it operated centrally, through annual exhibitions in London anchored in the Society for Education in Art, and on a local level, in geographically-distributed local authorities and schools. So far, I believe that local authorities in a few key areas – chiefly Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Cambridgeshire – built up particularly strong collections of council-owned artworks, with some of the artworks purchased through Pictures for Schools, and I am interested in seeing whether there were any links with and support from Regional Arts Associations.

One Comment on “Some history on the Arts Council”

  1. […] years, massively increased the costs for hiring rooms, a lack of financial commitment from the Arts Council, who had previously guaranteed the exhibitions against loss, and increasing financial pressures […]

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