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Art Asia (Southampton)

Volume 545: debated on Tuesday 22 May 2012

I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate and I thank the Minister for his offer yesterday of a meeting. The problems that I will raise have been going on for more than two years and it is time to put them on the public record, but I hope that the Minister will still be prepared to meet after we have had the debate.

There are serious questions about how Arts Council England, with Southampton city council, has treated the important arts charity, Art Asia. Art Asia was offered a capital grant to develop new facilities, but today it faces the loss of the grant through a murky and underhand process to which it has had no proper chance to respond.

Over the past 30 years, Art Asia has become one of the country’s more significant south Asian arts organisations. Under its director, Vinod Desai, it began with two simple aims. The first was to enable young people, usually the children of first-generation migrants, to learn, perform and appreciate the music and dance of their parents’ and grandparents’ home culture; and the second was to bring high-quality live performances to those older generations.

Art Asia has how moved well beyond achieving those initial aims, and has brought Asian culture to a wider audience, notably through the highly successful Southampton Mela, which attracts tens of thousands of people from all communities each July. The charity has also influenced mainstream arts programming. For example, because Art Asia has been able to establish that there are audiences for Asian culture, the Turner Sims concert hall and the Nuffield theatre now include it in their own mainstream programmes. World-class musicians have been brought to many parts of the UK, including to Southampton and other parts of Hampshire, so Art Asia is a significant organisation regionally and nationally, as well as in Southampton itself.

In 2000, Arts Council England established a £20 million capital programme for black, ethnic minority and Chinese arts organisations, which recognised that such groups had not received their fair share in previous funding rounds. Given Art Asia’s strength, it is not surprising that it applied for and, in 2001, received, a promise of funding of just short of £750,000 from the programme. Clearly, Art Asia would not have received the award unless there was confidence in its leadership, management and financial conduct, and in the quality of its programming.

There are, of course, limits to what can be achieved with £750,000. At the time, Southampton city council was developing, with Arts Council England, plans for a city arts complex. Everyone sensibly recognised that more could be achieved if Art Asia joined as a full partner in the arts complex, and there were also the potential advantages of VAT-liability reduction in a joint, but city-led, project. In 2003, Art Asia agreed to pool its award as part of the funding for the larger project, a deal that would guarantee the organisation its own dedicated facilities and give it a clear, formal role in the management of the centre.

Perhaps Art Asia was a little naive in assuming that Arts Council England and the city council would act in good faith and with integrity, but rather than insisting on a formal legal agreement it relied on written assurances. The paper that went to the Arts Council England management committee to approve the joint project stated that

“the public benefits from Art Asia’s element of the project are that it will place south Asian arts in the mainstream of Southampton’s cultural life; through high-quality facilities enable Art Asia to attract first-class national and international artists to Southampton; provide a wider range of audiences with performance and participatory work of the highest standards; through larger premises enable Art Asia to offer greater accessibility to participants in its classes; provide audiences with high-quality auditoria of an appropriate size; and offer an increased range of education services”.

Art Asia’s role was, therefore, recognised at the most senior level within Arts Council England, and a cost allocation between the partners was agreed.

Arts Council England’s south east office wrote to Art Asia on 4 January 2007 confirming that an award of £5.7 million to Southampton city council included

“the £724,000 awarded to Art Asia in July 2005 in recognition of Art Asia’s decision to be part of Southampton’s New Art Complex”.

The letter continued:

“Art Asia’s involvement in Southampton City Council’s capital development is strategically important to us. We will continue to support your organisation as it prepares for the opening of the new building and an increased regional presence”.

That seems to have been a clear commitment of principle and practice by Arts Council England.

The planning of the major arts centre project went ahead, moving slowly as such things often do, but in early 2010 things began to change. First, in the run-up to the 2010 election, Arts Council England began to raise doubts about the whole arts complex project. A report by Arts Council England officers recommended the withdrawal of the project, citing among other things concerns about the artistic leadership of the arts partners, which included not only Art Asia but the Nuffield theatre and the John Hansard gallery. It was the first time that such concerns had been raised, and they were less than specific.

I intervened with the then Secretary of State to secure a further review of the project. That happened, but it became clear that Arts Council England wanted to exclude Art Asia from its central role in the project. By April 2010, Arts Council England was negotiating with only the city council and excluding the other partner organisations. In June 2010 the city council submitted a new proposal, which replaced Art Asia and the Nuffield theatre with an unspecified “Performing Arts Organisation”, and Arts Council England agreed a grant on that basis in July 2010.

The grant, which had been awarded because of Art Asia’s work as an ethnic minority arts organisation, was absorbed into the Southampton arts complex funding, and Art Asia itself was excluded. In effect, Arts Council England and the city council took the money and made off with it, without taking any measures to secure the public benefit that had been identified by Arts Council England’s management in 2005.

With Art Asia, I have spent two years trying to establish how and why that happened. At no stage has either Arts Council England or the city council given any reasonable justification, reason or excuse to Art Asia. At no point has any organisation raised any clear concerns about Art Asia’s work, management or programming to which it could respond, nor has any reason been given for totally ignoring the whole basis of the original award, which was to support black and minority ethnic arts programming.

In 2010, I wrote three times to Arts Council England requesting an explanation, and also to the then leader of Southampton city council, who replied:

“It was made very clear to us by officers at the Arts Council that some significant changes were required if it were to have any chance of succeeding in securing the funding provisionally allocated to the project”.

His letter referred to

“fundamental concerns about the performing arts offer, including the two organisations identified to provide this: Art Asia and the Nuffield”.

In the end, it has taken freedom of information requests to shed more light on what happened. An internal memo from a senior Southampton council officer, Mike Harris, dated 18 May 2010, records a meeting he had with Arts Council England. In saying that Arts Council England was rethinking its “total investment” in Southampton, the note reports

“grave doubts about Art Asia’s artistic quality and sustainability”,


“a potential need to free the project from the Nuffield and, possibly Art Asia.”

A note of a conference call on 2 July between Arts Council England—ACE—and city council offices recorded that the

“Arts Council is nervous that some of the arts partners may lobby against the application”—

the city council’s new application—

“as there is no longer a guaranteed place for at least two of them (Nuffield and Art Asia). This would be unfortunate as it would look to the ACE Investment SubCommittee as though Southampton was divided in their desire for the arts complex”.

My reason for referring to those internal memos is that it is crystal clear that the Arts Council was active and instrumental in bringing about a situation in which Art Asia would be excluded from the project and lose its grant funding. However, it must be remembered that none of the criticisms uttered behind closed doors and used to force the city council to exclude Art Asia from the project were ever shared with Art Asia—nor was any evidence produced to support them, nor was Art Asia ever given a chance to respond or address them. Nothing in previous public assessments of Art Asia’s work substantiates the criticisms made in private.

In public, the Arts Council was telling a totally different story. I received a typical reply from its south-east executive director in January 2011, in which she mentioned an

“unwieldy and unviable business case”,

but then went on to say:

“Southampton city council and Art Asia requested that their capital grants be brought together in one single funding agreement that named Southampton city council the client. At this stage, Southampton city council and Art Asia are still in discussion about Art Asia’s role and space in the project”.

Given what I discovered through a freedom of information request, that response is disingenuous in the extreme and does not reflect well on the Arts Council. It is clear that decisions were being taken behind the scenes of which Art Asia was not aware and to which it could not respond. Significantly, none of the material that I have seen through my FOI request seems to have considered the moral and perhaps legal responsibility to respect the original reasons why the grant was made in the first place. There is no record of any attempt to secure the future of south Asian arts in the city of Southampton and the wider region.

I fully support my right hon. Friend’s comments about the huge respect in which Art Asia is held throughout Southampton and the whole of south Hampshire. It undertakes extensive artistic endeavours and brings ethnic minority art and cultural activities to the region.

As I understand it, Southampton city council gave a written assurance of the position of Art Asia’s grants, and informal assurances on the usability of its grants should the arts centre project not go ahead. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the record certainly appears to suggest throughout that Art Asia had a grant that was absorbed into the larger arts centre proceedings for technical and operational reasons, and that—morally, at least—Art Asia’s grant should remain protected if Art Asia wishes to use it for purposes other than the arts centre, if it is not to be a part of the arts centre in future?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Nothing in the early discussions, when Art Asia and the city council sensibly came together to pool their resources, suggested that Art Asia was putting its grant award at risk, but that is what now seems to have happened.

The Minister is responsible for voluntary organisations—as I have been in the past, as my hon. Friend has been and as you may well have been, Mr Crausby. Anyone who has funded voluntary organisations knows that there are times when frank discussions must be had, and when it must be made clear that changes will be needed in an organisation’s work for funding to continue. But that never happened in this case.

I have appreciated hugely the contribution that Art Asia has made to the life, culture and vibrancy of Southampton and the surrounding region. I am not an expert on south Asian arts; if there were criticisms of Art Asia, it should have been given the chance to respond to them. That would have been a proper process and natural justice, but it simply has not happened. As my hon. Friend said, that leaves Art Asia in a difficult position. It has been excluded from the leading role in the arts complex project that was originally proposed, it is being denied the right to remove its original grant funding from the arts complex project to develop its own facilities and, as I understand it, should the arts complex project not go ahead for any reason, Art Asia’s money will be withdrawn along with any other Arts Council funding.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that that is an unsatisfactory position. I have four points to put to him. First, I hope that he will acknowledge—if not today, then after he has had a chance to consider what I have said—that the issue has not been handled well, and that the Arts Council has not operated with the transparency and openness that a public body distributing taxpayers’ money should have shown.

Secondly, I hope that he will reaffirm his commitment to the original aim of the Arts Council BME and Chinese capital programme, which was to ensure that minority arts organisations get a fair share of public funding. That means ensuring that in one way or another, the original intention of giving the grant to Art Asia is fulfilled, whatever happens in future. Thirdly, will the Minister use his best endeavours to find a way forward that works for all parties, including Art Asia?

Finally—I hesitate to raise this point—I hope that the Minister will give his commitment to ensuring as far as possible that Art Asia is fairly treated in future. I have tried to be as accurate and factual as I can in what I have said, but such organisations are heavily dependent on grant funding. Like many arts organisations, Art Asia has suffered a significant cut in revenue funding, about 60%, although the funding for the Mela is to continue.

At the moment, members of Art Asia are torn between their feeling about the unfairness with which they have been treated and their fear that by raising questions, they will suffer further cuts. One reason why this debate refers to events that happened two years ago is, frankly, that everybody wanted to complete the Arts Council funding round before the issues were raised in a public forum.

I know that the Minister would not want Art Asia to suffer for raising these issues legitimately with its Member of Parliament. I look to him for a public assurance of fair treatment in the future.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby, and to respond to this important debate secured by the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) on an issue important to his constituency that might have wider implications.

As a colleague in the House, I know only too well how rare an opportunity it is to secure a Westminster Hall debate. I am looking at two colleagues with distinguished careers. The fact that they have taken the time to come to the Chamber to raise the issue speaks volumes about how important it is. To put it in a slightly more vernacular way, I do not think that either the right hon. Gentleman or the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) would use any weapon in his locker on an issue that was frivolous or unimportant. It goes without saying that it should be taken extremely seriously.

It is also nice, as I have some time, to be able to take a brief moment to praise Southampton as a city of the arts and an important cultural city, being the home of the great film maker Ken Russell, the great hymn-writer Isaac Watts and, of course, the songwriter sans pareil, Mr Craig David. I congratulate both Members on their contribution to Southampton’s return to the premier league. I look forward to seeing Southampton play at the home of the European champions next season, perhaps accompanied by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Despite my mildly humorous opening, the serious point is that the Arts Council has made a commitment to the arts in Southampton. That is why we are here today. We would not be here if the Arts Council had not made serious capital commitments to the city. As has been indicated by the right hon. Gentleman, that capital commitment is now focused exclusively on Southampton’s new arts centre. He went into a great deal of necessary detail about the issue, but to rehearse some of the chronology, the decision was made in June 2005 to grant Southampton’s new arts centre—known, I gather, by its acronym SNAC—some £5 million and give a £750,000 grant to Art Asia. At the time, neither organisation wanted to accept the money and put it in its bank account. There were a number of complicated reasons for that—all related to getting the project off the ground—including changes of developers, difficulty in meeting funding conditions, issues of leadership and artistic vision, and a concern that capital costs were increasing.

It was later agreed by the Arts Council’s management committee that a revised funding agreement of £5.724 million would be awarded to Southampton city council for SNAC, which named Art Asia and other arts organisations in its bid, and that included Art Asia’s award, which by that time was £724,000, not £750,000, because it had already received a capital sum of £26,000. However, things became slightly more complicated and an extraordinary review of the entire project took place under the auspices of the Arts Council between January 2009 and March 2011. I am told that since March 2010, the Arts Council’s south-east office has worked closely with Southampton city council to develop the governance and artistic vision for SNAC. As the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned, the office has also worked with the university of Southampton, because it is responsible for the John Hansard gallery, which is based on its campus. The aim of the review was to ensure a shared understanding of the strategic direction and any other issues before going ahead with the project.

I am pleased to note that a great deal of progress has been made. There has been a change to the operating model and design, and about two years ago, in July 2010, ACE provided another £1.5 million of capital to support SNAC. That means that the total capital investment for the project is about £7.2 million. The current position, as I understand it, is that Southampton city council has reviewed the design of the new arts complex as well as the governance and operating model. I also understand that the Arts Council regularly meets Southampton city council to discuss the project as part of the monitoring of the award of capital. Discussions are taking place on the external context in which the new development is taking place—that is, its place in the local, regional and national arts ecology—as well as on the design of the centre. The Arts Council’s clear goal is to give Southampton a high-quality arts offer and to galvanise its position as a cultural hub in the south-east. That is why Southampton city council has become a national portfolio organisation. It will receive almost £350,000 over the next three years to recruit an arts champion to lead on artistic vision and to work with SNAC.

That is the current position, but I have listened to what the right hon. Gentleman has said and will set out briefly what I am able to do. We fund the arts at arm’s length through the Arts Council, which is what every Government have done since the Arts Council was established. That is the absolutely appropriate way to fund the arts. Since we are debating controversial issues relating to the Arts Council, I should put on record the fact that, certainly during my time as a Minister, overall it has done an excellent job. In Alan Davey, it has a fantastic chief executive who has tackled a difficult financial position, as well as the review of the organisations that the Arts Council funds, with a deft hand. It is testament to his leadership that the Arts Council is now a widely respected institution.

I should also note that the problems that the right hon. Gentleman has brought to our attention began some time before Alan Davey was in post. Indeed, the Arts Council has had to cope with a recent inquiry into the funding of The Public in West Bromwich—given that one of the Members of Parliament there is the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson), it is not a place to make too many errors—and there were some criticisms, but I would not hold that against the current chief executive, who, to a certain extent, has inherited one or two problems that arose before his time.

I agree completely with both the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Southampton, Test that if there were problems with Art Asia as an organisation, it should have had the chance to respond. Although Art Asia’s funding has been reduced—as has the funding of many arts organisations—it continues to receive regular funding and to be a national portfolio organisation. Alan Davey and his colleagues at the Arts Council handled the process well, and one of the reasons why the process was held in high regard and earned a great deal of respect is that it was rigorous and based on artistic merit. Art Asia would not have survived and would not have continued to receive funding unless it was a well-run and important arts organisation. The fact not only that local MPs have been prepared to back it and give their time to raise the issue in Parliament, but that Art Asia has continued to receive funding from the Arts Council, speaks volumes—without my knowing a huge amount about Art Asia as an organisation—about its status as an important organisation that deserves support.

Turning to the four issues raised by the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen at the end of his contribution, first, I would hesitate to go on record at this early stage and agree with him that the issue has not been handled well. It might be worth while to undertake some form of independent review of the process in the future, to decide whether that is the case. Of course, as the right hon. Gentleman acknowledged, that relates to events that have already taken place and what we are concerned with is the here and now.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman invited me, almost as an issue of national policy, to commit myself to the aims of the BME and Chinese capital programme. I would not hesitate to agree with him that it is important that the Arts Council focuses on support for BME organisations. That is not an issue of political correctness. It is a straightforward matter of fact that many such organisations are not well represented and, to be frank, many of them do not necessarily have the insider knowledge—if I can put it that way—of how to apply to the Arts Council or of what opportunities it presents. I would always encourage the Arts Council to reach out to such organisations to encourage them to apply and be part of its funding programmes.

Thirdly, and perhaps most pragmatically, the right hon. Gentleman invited me to use my best endeavours to find a way forward. I will certainly agree to do that. I have written to him to suggest a meeting. I like nothing better than a good round table. I invite him and his colleagues from Southampton, Southampton city council, the Arts Council and Art Asia to sit around a table to discuss the issues and see whether we can find a way forward. Such comments tend to give my officials a dose of the heebie-jeebies, but given that they are also trying to deliver a £9.2 billion Olympic games, this should be a walk in the park for them. I promise that I will not cross the line by interfering in the Arts Council’s decision and that I will act exclusively as a neutral operator to bring the two sides together to discuss openly and frankly, but behind closed doors, a possible way forward.

That leads me to the right hon. Gentleman’s final point, namely whether Art Asia will continue to be fairly treated and avoid any comeback as a result of raising this issue in such a prominent fashion. I wholeheartedly agree with him that it is absolutely right and proper that any organisation that feels that it has been unfairly treated or that has concerns about something should be able to talk to its local MP, and that that local MP should be able to raise that issue in a way that he or she thinks appropriate. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that I am completely confident, given how closely I have worked with the Arts Council over the past two years and the excellent men and women who work there, that there will be no comeback on Art Asia for raising the issue. I very much hope that all that will have been achieved is that we can progress at a more rapid pace than has been achieved in the past. I will certainly, along with the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, put my shoulder to the wheel to try to establish a way forward.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.