MINISTERS have agreed to meet a community arts group which lost hundreds of thousands of pounds in Government grants.
An independent inquiry could also be set up to look at the case of Art Asia, which was left £750,000 out of pocket after being frozen out of Southampton’s new arts centre project.
John Denham, Labour MP for Southampton Itchen, used a Westminster Hall debate to raise “serious concerns” about the way the charity had been treated, telling MPs it was time to put the problems “on the record”.
He said: “Having been offered a capital grant to develop new facili ties, Art Asia today faces the loss of this grant through a murky and underhand process to which they have had no chance to respond.”
The row centres on a grant Art Asia received in 2001 from the Arts Council, which it agreed to put into the arts centre project, after receiving a “pretty clear commitment” that it would be given a share of the complex.
Mr Denham told MPs: “Maybe Art Asia were a little naive at this stage, assuming that the Arts Council and the city council would act with good faith and integrity.”
In 2010, it became clear that the Arts Council wanted to exclude Art Asia from its central role in the project, Mr Denham said.
Mr Denham described internal council memos, obtain-ed using the Freedom of Information Act, reporting “grave doubts about Art Asia’s artistic quality and sustainability.”
But these concerns were not shared with Art Asia, he said, adding: “It is clear that decisions were being taken behind the scenes that Art Asia was not aware of, and to which they could not respond.”
The Arts Council responded to the criticism yesterday by saying that it had worked hard to ensure good communication with Art Asia.
A spokesman said: “Art Asia is a member of our national portfolio and as such we believe it makes an important and valued contribution to Southampton’s cultural life.
“The Arts Council has strived to ensure good communication with the organisation is maintained and we is confident that Art Asia and Southampton City Council can reach a positive conclusion about the role that Art Asia will play in the success of the Southampton new arts complex.”
Conservative councillor Royston Smith, who was leader of Southamp-ton City Council when Art Asia were excluded from the scheme, said that John Denham had put the whole project at risk by raising it at Westminster.
He added: “It’s not anything to do with Southampton City Council – we haven’t frozen Art Asia out and we never did.
“It’s the Arts Council that’s given the grant and they determine how that’s spent.
“This was an irresponsible political knockabout on John Denham’s part and it risks derailing the whole project and losing something that will be fantastic for Southamp-ton.”
In re-sponse, Mr Denham has called on the Conservative leader to apologise for his part in the “murky affair”.
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey has also said that “some form of independent review” might be worthwhile to see whether Mr Denham’s criticism is justified.
Mr Vaizey invited the Arts Council, city council, Art Asia and Southampton MPs to a meeting to try and sort out the issue.
Art Asia has welcomed the decision to get all the parties involved around the table.