Forgan forgone: was the chair of Arts Council England a sitting duck?

Dany Louise, 03.04.2012
Dany Louise reacts to the announcement that Dame Liz Forgan has been asked to step down when her term of office ends in January
At the State of the Arts conference earlier this year, it appeared that Liz Forgan and Arts Council England's relationship with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) was far too cosy for the current climate.

I speculated that this reflected some delicate negotiations taking place behind the scenes. The news that culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has asked Dame Liz Forgan to step down as Chair of Arts Council England reveals some of what has been taking place.

Perhaps, by announcing Ed Vaizey to be "our national valentine" and taking a placatory approach, Forgan hoped for some damage limitation. It seems it was too little, too late.

Forgan has been a refreshing, honest and powerful voice for the arts, with a journalistic pedigree that signifies independence, authority and huge experience.

Importantly, she has been a much-needed foil to chief executive Alan Davey, previously of the DCMS, and a civil servant through to his marrow.

ACE is an NDPB (non departmental public body) of the DCMS, and therefore the role of chair is an appointment within the gift of the culture secretary – of whichever political persuasion.

But what makes this a particularly disturbing action is that there is absolutely no rational reason or public interest argument for Forgan to be removed.

She has done nothing wrong. Indeed, she has been utterly professional in the role – an enormously capable, energetic and experienced woman, massively respected by staff at ACE and across the arts and creative industries.

She has even implemented the policy directives and swingeing cuts forced on ACE, while having the courage to articulate the undesirable consequences of doing so.

This move seems motivated by self-interested party politics rather than a carefully considered decision taken with the best interests of the arts in mind. This is the most dispiriting aspect of the decision.

It surely has to be – must be – the culture secretary's duty and obligation to make decisions that are informed by what is best for the arts infrastructure and environment in this country. In this instance, he has failed to do that.

People in the know suggest Forgan has been sacrificed by Hunt to appease the political right of his party. She was made a Dame for services to radio broadcasting, and appointed as chair of ACE, by the previous Labour administration.

She is chair of the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian and the Observer. In other words, she is indisputably associated with liberal agendas.

Forgan has been ousted at a point when the Tories feel secure enough to bare their teeth and disregard any pretence of moderation. They are now saying what they really think and have stopped sugar-coating their bitter policy pills; this is only one aspect of that move.

Who will succeed her?

It's far too early to speculate with any real accuracy but my guess is someone aligned to conservative values and therefore likely to be less independent and more compliant than Forgan – probably from the private and corporate sector, and at best from the outer commercial reaches of the creative industries.

Jeremy Hunt wants someone who can promote philanthropic giving. Best case scenario? The sector wishlist might include Jude Kelly and Sir John Tusa but I don't think we'll be so lucky. We're more likely to get Jay Jopling on the terms Jeremy Hunt is giving.

Worst case scenario? A corporate CEO with only the slightest background, understanding and feel for the arts and the public sector. But whoever it is will be a Hunt appointee, chosen to forward his own and his government's agenda.

The arms-length principle – designed to promote the independence of arts production from government – may still survive this infringement, but it becomes considerably less effective when the two parties involved are holding political hands together.

Dany is a visual arts specialist and writer with 20 years experience in education, management and strategic arts roles. Now freelance, she focuses on organisational development and cultural policy in the visual arts – find her website and blog here

Follow her on Twitter

Written for Guardian Culture Professionals Network


Sort by: Most recent - Most liked
Patrick, Website Editor, Museums Association
MA Member, MJ Subscriber, MP Subscriber
03.04.2012, 17:25
Michael Portillo, Veronica Wadley and Peter Bazalgette are all put in the frame for the post in this article in The Indepedent: