Archive for November, 2012

Mission Impossible: On Alan Davey, Ambition, and Grammar

November 21, 2012

This morning, Arts Council England’s Chief Executive Alan Davey did a great disservice to his organisation – and to the arts sector at large – by admitting defeat at the hands of the Arts Council’s own mission statement. As part of a misleading and downright lazy article on elitism in the arts by the usually more nuanced Will Gompertz on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Alan Davey stumblingly pronounced on what he appeared to deem the futility of Arts Council England’s mantra: “Great Art for Everyone”. Gompertz’s article has been passionately and eloquently countered by many voices since it aired (most notably by Lyn Gardner and Charlotte Higgins of the Guardian), but Alan Davey, it seems to me, has escaped his share of the critical heat.

In pursuit of support for his misplaced contention that millions have been spent on the arts “to no great effect”, Gompertz asked Davey whether Arts Council England’s mantra of Great Art for Everyone was in fact “a politically expedient but unrealisable goal”, to which Davey replied:

“Of course great art for everybody is probably unachievable because you’ll never get everybody in the country wanting to encounter the arts and what it can offer [sic]”.

Probably unachievable.

This seems an alarmingly casual statement given that it features Arts Council England’s chief executive admitting his belief that the goal towards which he is leading his organisation is an unachievable one. (And that’s even before we note the irony of the 2010 ACE manifesto title: Achieving Great Art for Everyone… Maybe that document got a re-write at Great Peter Street today.)

 I suppose Mr Davey might be a shoot-for-the-moon-and-if-you-miss-you’ll-end-up-among-the-stars kind of a guy, but if so that demonstrates a random and wilfully lacklustre brand of optimism which isn’t going to help the arts very much in these particularly challenging times. I don’t want to believe that he would be so cavalier with the hopes, dreams and efforts of the sector for which he works.

When most of us acknowledge that the goal we are striving to achieve is, in fact, unachievable, we feel pretty defeated, demoralised, de-motivated; redundant even. Or, we reassess the goal, we redefine it; we find a new goal, a new mission, and a new energy with which to pursue it. It felt pretty hard not to feel defeated, demoralised, and de-motivated by Davey’s ‘unachievable’ admission this morning. If ACE doesn’t feel it can achieve its overriding mission for the arts, then…

But maybe, it’s a grammar problem. A mission statement is the expression of an organisation’s core ambition, and articulating it requires a long hard, self-reflective look in the mirror and a rigorous distillation process of interrogating what, fundamentally, it is trying to do. To Do. A mission statement answers the questions ‘What do we want to do?’, ‘What are we trying to achieve?’, ‘What’s our purpose?’ with a verb. With a word that says this is what we do.

‘Great Art for Everyone’ is missing its verb. What does the Arts Council want to do with ‘Great Art for Everyone’? Does it want to provide it, to offer it, to distribute it, to facilitate it, to enforce it, to share it, to prescribe it, to insist on it, to be it, to carpet-bomb it, to regulate it, to force-feed it, to dangle it, to spread it, to kindle it, to nurture it, to develop it, to buy it, to preserve it, to provoke it?

For me the best explanation for Alan Davey’s ‘unachievable gaffe’ (which frankly seemed not far short of a betrayal of the most honourable, respectable and laudable aims of Arts Council England), is that he simply doesn’t know what that invisible verb is which precedes his mission statement. He speaks as if that verb were a verb of universal conscription, of comprehensive and unyielding enforcement, implying that ACE will fail unless each and every person in the country encounters great art relentlessly and pervasively whether they like it or not.

Well, firstly, I don’t think that is so unachievable, especially if we’re all prepared to accept a more exciting and vital understanding of ‘art’ than Will Gompertz’s lamentably restrictive definition allows (which, as represented in his piece this morning, embraces opera, ballet and not a lot else). And I’m deeply saddened that the leader of the organisation responsible for husbanding the nation’s arts thinks that it is.

And secondly, I don’t think that is what Arts Council England’s mission is. It’s not about administering the arts with statutory ubiquitousness; it’s about making an invitation, and, in order to make that invitation with integrity and sincerity and diversity and relevance, it’s about furnishing every corner of the nation with the opportunity to discover and encounter great art.

It’s bloody difficult, yes. We’re not there yet, no. But probably unachievable?
No Alan, don’t you dare say that.