UPDATE: ARTISTS’ UNION ENGLAND HAVE WRITTEN TO ARTS COUNCIL ENGLAND. SIGN THE PETITION HERE.
The appointment of Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth Murdoch to Arts Council England’s National Council is not only deeply troubling, given her close ties to the Murdoch corporate empire, but is also a glaring example of how nefarious the UK arts establishment has become. The appointment of ex-Tate boss Sir Nicholas Serota as Chair of Arts Council England has clearly ushered in a new era of favouritism and nepotism in which a tiny select elite grease the palms of each other and their friends and family. Just look at the biographies of the other members of the National Council.
The appointment of Elisabeth Murdoch is directly linked to Sir Nicholas Serota’s current leadership of Arts Council England and to his wife, Teresa Gleadowe’s own arts projects. There are numerous connections, of which only some will be touched upon here. But first let’s remember that during Serota’s reign at Tate, he supported artwashing in the form of BP sponsorship, refused to recognise unions, privatised staff positions, introduced the use of zero hour contracts, presided over a culture of widespread bullying, privatised information, and, of course, Tate staff were then asked to kindly chip-in for a new boat for his leaving present! Serota’s leadership of Tate lasted 28 years.
Serota repeatedly used his position to privatise the institution, forging relationships with corporate and private interests, no matter where the money came from or at what cost to the environment or human rights. This culminated in the naming of the new wing of Tate Modern after the billionaire Ukranian oligarch Len Blavatnik, who donated a ‘substantial amount’ of the £260 million cost, according to The Guardian. Blavatnik was said to be the UK’s richest man in 2015. His wealth came from oil (including links with BP), chemicals and aluminium but he has extended his fortunes by investing in film, music (he owns Warner Music Group) and property. And, like many rich businessmen, he likes offshore tax havens too. The entire ‘Blavatnik’ wing of Tate Modern is nothing short of a monument to artwashing. He has recently donated £5 million toward the new V&A extension – a donation which left ex-Blairite Labour MP, now V&A director, Tristram Hunt feeling ‘honoured’ and the entrance being named ‘Blavatnik Hall’. Blavatnik has also given £75 million to Oxford University for their ‘Blavatnik School of Government’ (you couldn’t make this stuff up!) The billionaire is also a Trump supporter and donor.
The point here is that like BP and Blavatnik (to name just two dubious ‘sponsors’), the appointment of Elisabeth Murdoch to a position on Arts Council England’s National Council represents another example of the ongoing corporate capture of the arts in England. And, it is, I suspect, not a coincidence that this latest corporate appointment has happened under Serota’s leadership. Remember that the director of Tate is appointed by the government and approved by the prime minister. Serota was appointed to his role as Tate director by the Tories and Margaret Thatcher in 1988; he was appointed as Chair of Arts Council England by the Tories and Theresa May in 2017.
Clearly, Serota is a bit of a poster boy for Tory privatisation of the arts. This is very concerning. You see, Serota is not just Chair at Arts Council England now, he also remains a director of the Creative Industries Federation (here’s a flavour of their board and “ambassadors”). The Creative Industries Federation claims to have a “heavyweight board” of “top creative and business leaders”. It works “with politicians of all parties and across all of government and with every level of government – from eight Whitehall departments including No 10 and the Treasury, the devolved nations, metro mayors, city leaders, LEPs and local authorities”. It is another example of the corporate take-over of the arts – the neoliberalisation of the arts. It is worth remembering that Serota is also a non-executive director of the BBC. He was appointed in April 2017.
But Serota also oversaw Tate Modern’s partnership with Elisabeth Murdoch’s Freelands Foundation, which provided funding in 2015 and 2016 for the Tate Exchange programme which was launched in the new ‘Blavatnik’ wing. Murdoch’s Freelands Foundation is a Tate Exchange Founding Associate. Not only that, but Elisabeth Murdoch was a trustee of Tate until September 2016. Her foundation gave the company of which she was a serving trustee £150,000 in 2016 alone. This information is all available in the very revealing Freelands Foundation 2016 annual report. It is also interesting to note that the Freelands Foundation is a company limited by shares and a charity subject to US and UK laws. Furthermore, Murdoch’s foundation is entirely owned by Freelands Foundation Inc. – and where does it get its money from?
So, Elisabeth Murdoch served alongside Serota at Tate and helped fund some of the Tate’s work. And yet, as Tate’s own declaration of members’ interests 2015-2016 makes clear, Elisabeth Murdoch is a shareholder in her father Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and Twenty First Century Fox! Much of her wealth invested into the arts by her Freelands Foundation must come from dividends from shares in these highly unethical organisations. It is quite possible that some of the money used to fund the arts by Freelands Foundation comes from The Sun! Just think about that. And Murdoch is now a senior figure in Arts Council England. This is disturbing, to say the least!
Yet the Freelands Foundation also has links to Serota’s wife, Theresa Gleadowe’s arts companies. It is funding CAST (the Cornubian Arts & Science Trust) to deliver its three-year Groundwork project in Cornwall which was also awarded with £500,000 worth of Ambition for Excellence funding by Arts Council England in 2016. The Arts Council award was secured using £50,000 funding from Elisabeth Murdoch’s foundation. CAST’s other partners for their Groundwork project are Tate St Ives and Newlyn Art Gallery – Serota declared himself to have an interest in both these companies. Serota’s full list of his interests makes for a very illuminating read that deserves far more investigation than I have time for here. Importantly, Serota’s wife is a director of CAST and chair of its trustees. What’s more, the Groundwork project is also supported by Kestle Barton Trust of which Serota’s wife Gleadowe is a trustee. Kestle Barton is also funded by Arts Council England. The art world is, it seems, a small world.
It is therefore unsurprising to learn that Teresa Gleadowe is also a director of Kneehigh Theatre – an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation which received an increase in annual funding earlier this year. Interestingly, the company lists Sir Nicholas Serota as one of its “champions”. Kneehigh’s previous director Emma Rice caused outrage in the art world by gaining NPO status from nowhere. The extremely influential Rice remains a current “revered accomplice” of Kneehigh Theatre. But, more importantly, Serota’s wife is also chair of the board at Nottingham Contemporary – a company which won this year’s Freelands Award which was selected by Elisabeth Murdoch and is worth £100,000. Strangely, Gleadowe was one of the Freelands Award selection panel! Even more surreal is the discovery that Gleadowe is also a member of the Freelands Foundation’s advisory committee. So Serota has very close connections to Elisabeth Murdoch!
The appointment of Elisabeth Murdoch is an outrage for all the obvious reasons. But it’s just one part of a concerted corporate takeover of the arts by a self-entitled elite whose time is up! We need a radical change in how the arts works in this country. We need a radical redistribution of resources. We need equity and fairness for everyone. We need to decolonise the arts. And, to do that, we need to root out this sort of privileged, corporatist, self-serving class of English Arts Oligarchs.
The appointment of Murdoch is a point of no return. We must fight for truly representative, truly democratic arts and culture. And we must start demanding that now!