Published in the Fabian Review online, May 2016
The last time the government took a holistic look at the arts sector was in 1965 with the publication of the first ever culture white paper by Jennie Lee entitled ‘A Policy for the Arts, First Steps’. The paper sought to outline a path to making ‘the arts’ accessible to all.
Now in 2016 we are discussing the future paths for museums and arts organisations in light of the second culture white paper (snappily titled ‘The Culture White Paper’) released by Ed Vaizey, the current arts minister. In this he seeks to provide an overview of the current arts sector and goes some way to indicating a future policy framework for the arts in the UK.
The world has changed since 1965. The impact of technology and people’s ability to travel the world more freely has influenced the arts in ways we could never have predicted. For examples of this just look to the National Theatre’s ‘NT Live’ programme, broadcasting theatre productions into cinemas around the world reaching over 1.2 million people during 2014/15. Or the British Museum working with the Google Cultural Institute to make some of its vast archive available to view online.
More attention is paid to the creative industries than ever before and, unlike 1965, we have a broad definition of what the creative industries actually are and their benefit to both to the economy and the wellbeing of citizens. Today it is estimated that the economic contribution of museums, galleries, libraries and the arts is £5.4bn, representing 0.3 per cent of the total UK economy. In addition to this economic value, the UK also looks to derive value from the role of the arts in diplomacy, mostly through the work carried out by the British Council and the Great Campaign. The cultural diplomacy rating index, Soft Power 30, rates the UK number one in 2015.
Ed Vaizey’s culture white paper covers four key themes:
We should be seeking to remove barriers to the arts both in terms of those who participate and those who work in them; undoubtedly the creative sector is still one driven by the white middle-classes and a joined up effort to change this must be approached.
There is still some way to go, and the white paper goes some way to defining the core issues to work on. There is still a serious lack of diversity in arts, clear pathways and opportunities need to be identified so those from all parts of society can assess and understand how the arts operate. Apprenticeships should be incentivised and transparency and career pathways must be developed. We must understand the role of culture in ‘place-making’ and need to work with local authorities and communities on articulating the role of arts organisations within the remit of the local authority.
This recommends a shift from central funding to regional and local funding, which will see more arts driven and initiated for, and by, the local community. ‘We should no more dictate a community’s culture than we should tell people what to create or how to create it. The role of government is to enable great culture‘. The Arts Council have subsequently promised 75 per cent of its grant will be spent outside of London. The role of ‘place-making’ is key here and the City of Culture scheme.
The paper recognises the role of the arts in cultural diplomacy through work with UKTI and the British Council. The GREAT campaign which has already secured economic returns of £1.8bn to the UK and the global reach of celebrations such as the 400-year anniversary for Shakespeare enhance the brand of the UK.
It also commits to developing a new fund to protect cultural heritage and antiquities and help recover acts of destruction and will continue to support the British Council to promote cultural dialogue celebrating with seasons of culture in India, Korea and Arab Emirates.
Finally, the paper addresses the support for resilience programmes for the arts including setting up a Commercial Academy for arts organisations, supporting growth incentives and paying more attention to corporate giving.
It hones in on sustainability and the want to ‘improve and spread commercial expertise in the cultural sectors’ alongside creating a rejuvenated approach to corporate giving and looking again at gift aid donor rules.
The paper has largely been welcomed, though by Vaizey’s own admission it is not proposing anything radical. Much of the comments focus on recommendations made around funding. The shadow culture secretary, Maria Eagle, said arts and culture faced a ‘real threat‘ under the Conservatives:
The Arts Council ’s core grant in aid will have been cut by 36 per cent between 2010 and 2015. And by 2019 [the Department for Culture, Media and Sport] will have to find its share of £3.5bn of further cuts in 2019-20 to make the chancellor’s budget plans add up. Across the country, local authority funding is under even greater pressure.
Peter Bazelgette, the outgoing chair of Arts Council England, commented following the publication of the culture white paper:
Around 40 museums have closed in the last five years. A similar number tell us they are at risk. Local authority investment in museums has declined by £33m in that time.
However, there does appear to still be a disconnect between central government and local authorities when decisions are being made over funding or closure of local arts provision, one that continually puts museums, libraries, other arts organisations on the proverbial chopping block.
2016 has already been a tough year for the arts. Alongside threats of museum closures and DCLG budget cuts hitting community art organisations, there has been the loss of some of the UK’s most celebrated artists in David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Ronnie Corbett, Lemmy and Victoria Wood. Perhaps the question we should be asking is what are the conditions which have allowed creativity to flow so successfully in the UK? How could a working class lad like David Jones become the international superstar David Bowie? What gave him the break and what inspired him to learn to music?
In autumn last year, London-based arts organisation Create produced a season of research and debate entitled ‘Panic!’. The season ran a national survey of arts workers in conjunction with Goldsmiths University and the Guardian. The survey found that an overwhelming majority of those working the arts (76 per cent) had at least one parent working in a managerial or professional (ie ‘middle class’) job whilst they were growing up and that over half had at least one parent with a degree whilst growing up. When paired with the fact that nearly 90 per cent of respondents had worked for free at some point in their career, the Panic! research paints a bleak picture that if young people don’t have parents that are able to support them in their pursuit of a creative career then it is an extremely hard to break into the industry.
Jennie Lee’s paper in 1965 made a bold move and demanded a 30 per cent increase into investment for the arts. Vaizey’s paper carefully navigates the issue of a commitment to more support by the government through a strategy based on incentive schemes and partnerships. All great ideas but these strategies paint very different stories depending where you are in the country.
Corporate organisations can see the benefit of supporting the V&A or the Tate with their international audiences and potential drinks parties with St Paul’s Cathedral as a backdrop. Much less attractive are the civic museums which house eclectic collections of the weird and wonderful such as stuffed parrots, rocks or Victoriana and it is these provisions which are desperately having to re-articulate their purpose to the local authorities or face closure. It doesn’t matter how many arts organisations you put through a ‘Commercial Academy’ if the same numbers of businesses are giving to the arts, you’re just helping more organisations ask the same businesses for support. It is an unsustainable model to rely on the current small pool of businesses who regularly give to the arts to support the whole sector and make up for these cuts. We need to show and work with businesses, and not just big business on why the arts are important and why we must support them. Everyone must know that no donation is too small.
If increased funding to the arts from central government is unlikely there needs to be more guidance and policy protecting local arts provisions from cuts and incentives for Local Authorities and museums to work together.
The Creative Industries Federation have noted the lack of focus on the link between creative industries companies and arts organisations and a distinct absence of a compelling case for the arts to be central part of education. These are crucial points. Firstly it is a mistake not to talk more widely about the creative industries. This could have been a moment to widen this conversation, particularly around the relationship between businesses like advertising and media and how they relate to our museums and theatres. It feels like a missed opportunity and could have marked a real change since Jennie Lee’s paper in 1965. Secondly if the role of creativity in education was coupled with an effort to create more dialogue with the creative industries it could have taken us somewhere closer to the highlighting of a unique strength of the UK. Importantly there needs to be government support to help to provide guidance for local government on the conditions we need to encourage in our communities to ensure the UK are one of the leaders of this sector.
One thing in Vaizey’s paper I can’t argue with is the need to diversify audiences but added to this I implore that we look at the issue of class as well as inclusion of those from the BAME communities. We need to make sure that everyone can access the arts because poverty in the UK runs across more than race. Only through some serious self reflection can we ensure the arts don’t revert to 1960s as something for the privileged but instead remains firmly as it was in the 1980s as a radical exciting and democratic space for anyone to express themselves. It is there that we get the good stuff and to be there we simply need to support the arts.
Overall it feels like there is still much unpredictability and many questions go unanswered. It is the right amount of positivity and small shifts to create some changes in the short term but not quite enough to ensure the future of our arts provisions are secure. Money remains the great unanswered question and the recently announced shift of funding from London to the regions – a whopping 75 per cent – could greatly change the arts in this country. It could be a good thing or it could be the death knell. Whichever it seems to me that the answer to this great unanswered question is the hope that the private sector will step in.