Arts Council cuts - the X Factor special
Simon Cowell and Alan Davey do not look alike. The pop impresario's slender body is topped-off with a full head of dark hair that starts growing just above his eyebrows. Whereas the chief executive of Arts Council England is... well, as I say, they don't look alike.
But next week, Big Al gets to play at being Oh! Simon, in his very own version of X Factor, called Ex-Actor (or theatre, orchestra, gallery). He too will have a couple of cohorts. Dame Liz Forgan (Chair, Arts Council England) will take on Cheryl Cole's role as national treasure and Andrew Nairne (Director of Strategy, Arts Council England) will be the straight-talking Louis Walsh.
Obviously there are some differences in the format to avoid embarrassing accusations of plagiarism from Mr Cowell, but generally the idea is the same. A bunch of talented but vulnerable hopefuls give it their best shot in front of some informed but impartial judges, who will decide their fate. The judges' decision is final, there is no recourse, no debate, no second chance: you are either in or you are out.
And just like the TV show, the sense of "jeopardy" is cranked up by using the old "musical chairs" formula; except this time it's not one chair being removed, but half of them. About 1,350 arts organisations across England have applied to receive a three-year funding agreement from Arts Council England. Roughly half of them will be refused and receive no money. Many of those that do receive a grant will be disappointed by the amount of money on offer. They will all find out by 8am next Wednesday 30 March.
It is a momentous occasion: the single biggest arts funding event this country has known since the Major government created the National Lottery. Its importance goes beyond who are the winners and losers, but points to the strategic thinking of the council.
Will they address what many see as an unacceptable inequality between the funding of London-based organisations and those in the regions? Will there be any high-profile casualties of poorly performing outfits? What will their criteria be for making the decisions made? Will they get it right?
I hope so. Alan Davey is a decent man who cares deeply about the organisation he is running and the arts sector in general. He has worked hard since becoming chief executive to add some rigour and accountability to the council and those that it funds. And he has done the hard yards; he's gone out there and met, listened to and encouraged arts institutions, local councils and central government. But now it is decision time, his moment of truth.
Ultimately leadership is not about being a good administrator or a good bloke; it's about judgement. Great leaders call it right, the duffers don't. Some have already privately questioned the process leading up to decision-day on Wednesday week.
Arts Council England appears to be attempting to achieve four goals in one process: to reduce the amount of arts organisations they fund, to bring previously un-funded organisations into the fold, to implement a more rigorous and accountable funding process, and to alter the way in which they fund organisations. That's a lot for one process.
And it might cause problems. Most of the arts organisations I have spoken to are asking for more money, not less, although they know the overall pot is reduced because of the government cuts. They tell me they have been encouraged to do so, in a way Oliver wasn't. Don't come to us with a begging bowl half way through the year, they have been advised - tell us what you really need. Frankly, that's like asking a racing driver how fast his car goes when really they should be saving fuel.
Some have also questioned the wisdom of trying to reduce their existing portfolio of regularly-funded organisations because of the government's cuts, while at the same time encouraging applications from companies that are new to the council. What was once a cutting exercise due to reduced government subsidy has become a strategic process brought about by the need to reform an outdated system. Cuts that could have been blamed squarely on government have become an Arts Council England initiative to reform the way it funds the arts. At least that's how the government is likely to spin it.
Few doubt that the council are trying to do the right thing, but maybe they're making life less than easy for themselves. At one time they were going to have to disappoint a hundred or so of the 750 organisations they regularly fund. But now with 1,350 applications, they are going to really upset 700-odd companies, plus many, many others who have put in for more money, only to be given less than they had before. A handful will get a bit more.
All of which leaves Arts Council England and Alan Davey in particular, quite exposed. He will have to have rock-solid rationale for each and every decision that is made. Meaningless platitudes such as "great art for everyone" will not wash. He will have to explain why one perfectly good theatre has had its funding withdrawn, while another equally good - but not obviously better - theatre is cut.
The criteria will need to be absolutely clear. Any ambiguity, any silly blandishments, and one of the many disaffected companies will launch the only weapon available to them - to question the whole process. And if that happens, well, it wouldn't be good...