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Farewell, Sir Peter Bazalgette. Your successor will need a thick skin

21 January 2016

So farewell then, Sir Peter Bazalgette. This time next year you will no longer be Chairman of Arts Council England, after just four years in the job. You looked as though you were enjoying yourself, but as you have explained: ‘there are a number of new opportunities I would like to take up before I pop my clogs.’ At least you are going in your own time, whereas, in her own words, your predecessor, Dame Liz Forgan, was ‘sacked’. But then you always were more congenial to the Conservative-dominated Department for Culture, Media and Sport under the Coalition government. And you had impeccable cultural qualifications as a television entrepreneur who brought Big Brother to these shores.

Although you obediently set out to encourage private philanthropy and the creation of endowments (with mixed results), your good connections could not save ACE from the 36% cut in its core funding since 2010, nor a 21% cut in its staff. Your surviving Executive Directors now have to double up national and regional responsibilities, with ACE a ghost of its former self outside London. You have also had to take over responsibility for helping to fund regional museums and encouraging libraries.

It must have been embarrassing to have to put English National Opera – where you had been on the board – in ‘special measures’. But you were a genial presence at gatherings of the culturati, and you were firmly committed to encouraging greater diversity in the personnel, programmes and audiences of ACE-funded organisations, threatening the loss of funding if nothing was done. You were keen on bringing the arts and ‘creative industries’ together. The fledgling Creative Industries Federation, with its ambition to be a CBI of the arts, owes you a lot.

Your legacy is twofold. Firstly, Chancellor George Osborne’s Autumn statement, which ended the attrition in ACE funding with a standstill in cash terms up to 2020. Memorably, Osborne accepted that deep cuts would be a false economy, and described the arts as a good investment. Secondly, there is the appointment of Darren Henley as ACE’s Chief Executive, having been managing director of the arts minister Ed Vaizey’s favourite radio station, Classic FM. Henley, who has the air of a friendly bank manager, wrote two important reports on cultural education for the Coalition, and his background in commercial radio, like yours in commercial television, will suit the present government.

There is no doubt that your tall and smiling presence will be missed by many in the cultural sector, where you saw the Arts Council through difficult times. It will be hard to find your successor: someone unfazed by the Conservatives’ determination to shrink the state, but with cultural credibility. And a very thick skin.

Photo: Steven Peskett