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North East culture chief Mark Robinson to leave the Arts Council

THE Arts Council’s top man in the North East, Mark Robinson, has told colleagues he is to leave the organisation as a major restructuring process takes place.

Mark Robinson

THE Arts Council’s top man in the North East, Mark Robinson, has told colleagues he is to leave the organisation as a major restructuring process takes place.

This would appear to lessen the possibility of the new area executive director for the North, in a slimmed down and restructured Arts Council, being from – or based in – the North East.

But Mr Robinson was keen to allay fears that the North East might lose an influential voice in national arts decision-making.

He was appointed executive director of Arts Council England, North East nearly five years ago and has worked for the organisation for nearly a decade.

He and counterparts in Yorkshire and the North West were given the opportunity to apply for the new, more senior role of area executive director for the North as the nine Arts Council England regions are regrouped into four larger areas.

Mr Robinson told staff and Arts Council clients that he had decided not to put himself forward for the job and to leave the organisation in due course.

He said: “It’s not been an easy decision to make, but it feels like the right thing for me to do to make a change at this point.

“I’m not sure yet what ‘in due course’ will be, so I expect to be around for a good while yet – the new structure will not come into play fully until April 2010 but some things may change before then, I guess.”

Mr Robinson’s decision leaves open the possibility that the most senior Arts Council official in a region encompassing the North West, Yorkshire and the North East will in future be based in Manchester or Dewsbury, West Yorkshire.

Staff at the Arts Council England, North East office in Central Square, Newcastle, have been told that their jobs are at risk as the organisation nationally strives to reduce administration costs by 15% by 2010/11.

In Newcastle, the equivalent of 37 full-time posts is to be reduced to 24 as Arts Council England seeks to reduce the duplication of services across the four new areas, the others being: East Midlands, West Midlands and South West; East and South East; and London – to stand alone, according to Mr Robinson, “because of the density of the arts sector” in the capital.

Mr Robinson said it was a difficult time for Arts Council staff in the North East with some facing redundancy or redeployment.

“It is a substantial change but we do think overall it will make us more efficient.

“I think it’s quite right that we have to justify the money we spent on ourselves, both to the public and to arts organisations.

“If we decided not to make more efficiency savings, that would be so many thousands of pounds that did not go to arts organisations.”

In its briefing note, Arts Council England explained that it had been asked to cut administration costs by the Government so that £6.5m could be found to go directly into the arts.

It stated: “Because of the level of savings already made by the Arts Council over the last few years, finding this amount of additional saving will require a fundamental restructure of the organisation.”

Speaking off the record, some arts bosses in the region expressed concern that Mr Robinson’s departure would mean the region losing a powerful advocate.

One said Arts Council England, North East and its predecessor, Northern Arts, had enabled the region to punch above its weight over the past 15 years.

The multi-million-pound improvement in the arts infrastructure – resulting in developments like Seven Stories, Baltic, Dance City and The Sage Gateshead – would not have been possible without a strong regional voice, the arts chief suggested.

Under the current system, the executive directors of all nine English regions sit on the Arts Council executive board, meeting in London nine times a year.

After reorganisation only the four new area executive directors will attend those meetings.

Mr Robinson played down fears that the North East would be losing an influential role in decision-making, saying: “It will be the job of the area executive for the North, whoever that might be, to make sure he or she has knowledge of every bit of the region.”

He said there would be no new Arts Council for the North headquarters, with the new area executive director working out of the most convenient existing office.

Under the new system, each of the nine regional offices would have a regional director who would be answerable to the area executive director.

In the Newcastle office, with Mr Robinson’s intended departure, this will be a new appointment.

Already plans are being put into place to route all applications to Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts scheme, which funds one-off projects, to the Manchester office.

But Mr Robinson said people in the North East would still be involved in assessing those received from this region.

“It should be a more efficient way of distributing those grants – and we are looking at ways in which we can improve the grants system while we are doing this, making it simpler perhaps for people who just want small amounts of money.”

Mr Robinson, who lives in Eaglescliffe, near Middlesbrough, said he was proud of what had been achieved in the North East in recent years, not just the development of new buildings but people’s increased participation in and enjoyment of the arts.

He believed the arts would continue to play a part in regenerating the area, not just in a physical sense, but in a social and an economic sense.

He said: “I’ve loved working here, working with the arts sector and the staff here and our partners, so it wasn’t an easy decision to make. I have now lived here longer than the place I grew up, Preston in Lancashire, and I do intend to stay here.

“There is still a job to be done here but I shall be thinking through a few options for the future.”

Proposals

ARTS Council England’s proposed new structure will include:

:: A smaller head office, focused on strategy.

:: Nine regional office, including that of Arts Council England, North East.

:: Regional offices grouped under four new area executive directors.

:: A central Grants for the Arts team based in Manchester.

:: A streamlined advocacy and communications team.

:: A smaller executive board of nine members rather than 14.

Page 4 - £100m arts shortfall revealed >>

£100m arts shortfall revealed

ARTS projects face a £100m shortfall in funding, it was reported yesterday.

The problem is said to have arisen as a result of commitments from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport officials, headed by Culture secretary Ben Bradshaw, to back more projects than its budget can afford.

It was not known last night if the £100m national shortfall will cause difficulties for projects in the North East.

Yesterday’s report stated that the problem had become apparent in the DCMS’ capital budgets for the financial years 2009-10 and 2010-11.

It quoted unnamed sources within the arts establishment as describing the funding shortfall as "quite astounding" and "a hopeless cock-up", while another said it was indicative of "hopeless management".

Another unnamed source was said to have told of a letter being sent to financial directors who’d had dealings with the department, which stated that it was £100m overspent on capital and that it was seeking the return of monies that had not yet been spent.

A spokesman for the DCMS was quoted as confirming: "Our capital budget is currently over committed.

"Ministers are examining the reasons for this and looking for solutions.

"It is possible that difficult decisions will be needed, but none has been taken yet."

While speculation spread quickly through arts circles in the North East, it was not immediately apparent if the shortfall will be particularly felt in the region.

It is a different story elsewhere where, it was reported, projects like the redevelopment and expansion of Tate Modern in London could be set to one side, as could the major development scheduled at the British Museum, which only yesterday was seeking planning permission for a £135m project to which the Government two years ago had pledged £22.5m in support.

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