Dame Liz Forgan, the outgoing chair of Arts Council England, reminder that tentpoles like the Cultural Olympiad cannot solve deeper problems. The rumpus began when she was introduced by Minister for Culture Ed Vaizey as ‘our very own Dame Liz Forgan’. Forgan understandably bristled at this familiarity, having recently been asked by Vaizey’s colleague Jeremy Hunt to step down when her term expires in January 2013. Although she and Hunt have always been on good terms in public, it is no secret that Forgan – a left-of-centre Labour appointment who chairs the Scott Trust, owner of the Guardian and Observer newspapers – was unpopular on the right.
Her response to Vaizey’s introduction was curt and timely: ‘Honestly! What humbug: the weather is miserable, budgets are being slashed’. Sir Nicholas Serota, the Tate’s director, answered with the glum yell from the audience ‘And you’re leaving the Arts Council’. Serota has been a voluble critic of the Dame’s dismissal – in March he told The Guardian ‘I am deeply disappointed that Liz Forgan is not being renewed as chair of the Arts Council. She has led the council with real verve and conviction through a period in which cuts to arts spending could have resulted in the loss of major parts of our cultural landscape.’
Under her leadership the Arts Council has seen its purview widen to include museums, libraries and cultural education, but Forgan is well aware of the grim realities behind the ‘humbug’. In 2010 the government ordered her to halve its running costs by 2015, which will probably result in 150 redundancies this Autumn. She warned loudly of the ‘drastic change’ this mandate would impose, and likewise spoke out against George Osborne’s recent cap on tax relief for charitable donations – telling The World At One that it could create an £80 million hole in funding. Similarly, beyond the fundamentally anti-Tory sentiment, her speech may prove to be an unwelcome shift of focus away from the temporary lustre of the Cultural Olympiad. Jeremy Hunt is presumably hoping her successor will be less outspoken.
The Dame did find some silver linings during her speech, however. The multistorey Photographers’ Gallery, which has just undergone a £9 million renovation, was brusquely described as the ‘classiest loft conversion imaginable’. Which is something, at least.
Words: TOBY PARKER-REES Photo-collage : Kerim Aytac