Comment: The arts will not save our inner cities

Last month, Arts Council England announced the appointment of its new chief executive, Alan Davey, who will take up his post early next year.

Nick Seddon
Nick Seddon

For those who regard the Arts Council as more of a quango than a charity, it will come as no surprise to learn that Davey is an establishment man. He is currently director of arts and culture at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, where he has been for many years.

The new role will present him with many challenges. Davey might not be able to bring onside those who resent their taxes being used to fund the arts, but it is important that he seeks to show that the Arts Council can use our money - due to rise from £417m this year to £467m in 2010/11 - wisely.

One way to do that is to dispense with the prevailing notion in government that the arts should be funded on the grounds of their value for social inclusion and urban regeneration. Not only is this bad for art - when social utility takes precedence, we're left with the depressing lack of character witnessed in many publicly funded artworks - but driving social outcomes through art is not an effective use of taxation.

Take urban regeneration. Money is spent on prestige schemes - such as the Public, a £40m community arts centre in West Bromwich - which are touted as catalysts for change. But with housing construction at its lowest level since 1924 and people struggling to meet soaring house prices, such projects represent a limited regeneration strategy. Yes, they form part of the cultural landscape, but they're hardly a solution to the poor infrastructure and housing provision in our cities.

There are hundreds of other quangos out there, not to mention local and central government, which have responsibility for urban regeneration and social inclusion. The Arts Council shouldn't be doing their jobs for them; it should be promoting quality art for art's sake, contentious as that might be.

How the Arts Council qualifies as a charity baffles me, but Davey must at least prove that he won't simply be working for his old employer in a new guise. The Arts Council is supposedly an arm's-length body, not the government's Go-Go-Gadget arm.

- Nick Seddon is an author and journalist: 

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