1940–45: CEMA and the beginning of the Arts Council
Before there was the Arts Council England, there was CEMA, The Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts. CEMA began informally in 1939, as the result of a conference held by Board of Education members. The initial objective of the committee was to give financial assistance to cultural societies, which were struggling to continue their activities during the war. The Committee was funded by £25,000 from the Pilgrim Trust, a charity founded by the American philanthropist Edward Stephen Harkness in 1930.
CEMA was formally set up by Royal Charter in 1940. From its beginning, there were two distinct schools of thought about its mission. Dr Thomas Jones, an ex-cabinet Secretary to Lloyd George, led the first approach. In the 30s, Jones had been involved with schemes to encourage unemployed miners to engage in the arts as a means to keep them occupied and learning. Jones saw CEMA as a similar scheme to improve national morale during wartime. CEMA directly provided culture to the regions by promoting theatre and concert tours by national companies, provided artists with employment, and emphasized local participation and the contributions made by amateur groups.
Jones' enthusiasm for the local and amateur was balanced by others on the committee, especially John Maynard Keynes, who believed CEMA, and later the Arts Council, should fund the 'best', rather than the 'most'. Keynes became Chair of CEMA in 1941, and his views would remain in the ascendant until the 1960s.
Over the next six decades, the pendulum swung back and forth between these ideas of what the Arts Council should accomplish. Should funding be given to promote access and increase participation in the arts? Should decisions be made centrally, from London, or should the regions have more control?