Hytner Decries ACE 'Mess' as Protest Hits StreetsDate: 16 January 2008
While the National Theatre, as the UK’s flagship theatrical institution, is one of the winners of Arts Council England’s proposed budgetary settlement, that hasn’t stopped NT artistic director Nicholas Hytner joining the chorus of disapproval over the controversial proposed cuts in funding to 194 other organisations (See News, 10 Jan 2008), whose deadline to appeal was yesterday (15 January).
At an NT press conference held this afternoon to announce the 2008 season (See Today’s Other News), Hytner said “the current situation is a terrible mess” with ACE recommendations that “seem to be ill thought-through and certainly very unfair”. What’s more, the uproar provoked and resulting confusion leaves those organisations which have been promised the inflationary 2.7 percent increase, including the NT, in a tight squeeze as well. Assuming that a number of the most unpopular cuts are successfully appealed, that would mean a necessary reduction in the expected rises.
At the National, that could be to the detriment of what Hytner described today as his “most ambitious” programme yet. “Our 2008/9 budget would fall to bits if we don’t get the 2.7 percent increase,” Hytner warned.
The director also revealed that, over the past few weeks, he has personally intervened to lobby on behalf of three organisations facing cuts: Exeter Northcott, the National Student Drama Festival and the Bush Theatre (See News, 17 Dec 2007). Both the Northcott - where Hytner worked early in his career and which only reopened last month after a year-long, £2.1 million redevelopment - and the National Student Drama Festival, run annually since 1956, may lose all funding, while the Bush, the highly successful home of new writing in Shepherd’s Bush, faces a 40 percent drop of £180,000 per annum (See News, 15 Jan 2008). Though he could not reveal the confidential justifications offered by ACE, Hytner said that, in each case, “I was not satisfied with the reasons I was given” for the cuts.
Hytner was amongst the arts leaders who lobbied the Government long and hard against reducing its budget to the arts, enlisting Oscar winners and other celebrities in his campaign, amongst earlier fears that the sector may lose out to sport in the run-up to the 2012 London Olympics. When the Government announced the Arts Council’s settlement as part of its Comprehensive Spending Review three months ago (See News, 12 Oct 2007), Hytner described the inflationary increase – as well as an additional £50 million boost from Culture Secretary – as “excellent news and, under current economic circumstances, the best anyone in the arts could have expected”. Today, he declared ACE’s handling of the money as “a strategic catastrophe”.
“It’s bluntly annoying that this settlement that we achieved through persistent and persuasive lobbying has resulted in this horrible mess,” said Hytner. The simple proposition – that “good theatre deserves and requires public investment” – must hold true, he went on to stress, but the problem lies with people in positions of power who “don’t just invent the bollocks, they live the bollocks, ... They complicate rather than simplify … They sit around talking about strategy, but that’s the one thing they’re definitely not getting right.”
The affected organisations, who were only informed before Christmas, had to lodge any objections by yesterday ahead of an Arts Council meeting on 23 January to decide their ultimate fates. Final decisions are expected to be confirmed next month. Hytner advised that ACE should tread very carefully with the process, especially as many of its disputed recommendations appear to have been founded on flawed data and/or ill-informed assumptions: “These appeals have to be considered with great professionalism, thoroughness and sympathy.”
As part of ongoing protests against the proposed cuts, a flashmob-style demonstration was held at Piccadilly Circus yesterday afternoon to coincide with the appeals deadline. An estimated 300 theatre young directors, producers, writers and actors – supported by more senior colleagues such as Alan Rickman, Juliet Stevenson and Nigel Planer – stood together in silence for 15 minutes while wearing white plastic masks and carrying placards outlining their complaints.
Daniel Goldman, one of the organisers form the Young Vic Genesis project, explained to Whatsonstage.com that their protest was not against funding cuts in general but rather the Arts Council’s mishandled procedure, specifically: an unclear set of criteria and lack of transparency in decision-making, the restricted nature of allowed objections, the unrealistically brief timespan for appeals (“five weeks over Christmas just isn’t good enough”), and the failure to involve theatre practitioners in an advisory role.
“We want an honest, transparent and open Arts Council we can TRUST” cried one placard. Another: “We're not stars of the stage (yet). We're not on your radar (yet). We're not ‘excellent’ (yet). And we never will be... unless Arts Council England works with the theatre community to improve the process by which it makes its funding decisions.”
- by Terri Paddock