Government neglects culture at its peril
The lack of ambition and drive in London is pushing culture and creativity back to the margins
By John Holden. Comment, Issue 211, March 2010
Published online: 24 March 2010
Politicians of every persuasion, when given responsibility for the arts, soon tell us that they have “the best job in government”. It’s hardly surprising; first nights, gallery openings and rubbing shoulders with film stars make a pleasant change from dealing with the humdrum troubles of constituents. When the Department for National Heritage was set up in 1992, it was instantly dubbed “the Ministry of Fun”. That was all very well 20 years ago, but it’s not good enough now. During that period the role of the arts and culture in people’s lives and their importance to the nation have fundamentally changed. The problem is that politicians haven’t caught up with what’s been happening.
On both sides of the Atlantic, culture is at the margins of government. In Washington it sits in the East Wing not the West Wing. In the UK the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has a smaller budget than the Cabinet Office, and the Arts Council’s annual grant amounts to around one fifth of the Ministry of Defence’s regular annual overspend of £2.5bn to £3bn.
In most local authorities, culture sits in a department with the words “Leisure” or “Recreation” in the title. But the arts and heritage are much more important than that, and their significance stretches right across policy. In a recent parliamentary answer, culture secretary Ben Bradshaw said that the area of the economy that the DCMS is responsible for accounts for 10% of GDP. Much of the UK’s revenue from tourism is driven by the motivation to visit museums and historic sites. This is not just about money: cultural tourism has an effect in terms of foreign relations as well. Beyond that, evidence is mounting that the arts are important in education and the development of social skills, and in terms of health. Perhaps most important of all, our cultural life has become the means by which we define who we are. Our sense of self comes through our choices about what we watch, read, listen to, create and play.
None of this is to suggest that the arts are only of instrumental use; rather it is to stress their wide-ranging significance. As Jordi Marti, the head of culture in Barcelona, puts it, culture has become “the second ecosystem of humankind”.
Sad, then, that our political parties have not understood this. The taxonomy of Whitehall continues to box culture into a narrow space, and the problem that any incoming secretary of state for culture will have lies in convincing his or her cabinet colleagues that cultural concerns are integral to the proper functioning of their own departments. This means changing the argument from the weak “look what the arts can do to help!” to “unless you take culture into account you will fail: fail economically, educationally, and above all in achieving the goal of politics, which is ‘the good life’”.
That argument will take time to win, though it is gathering momentum. Post-election there will be more immediate concerns, most of all money. The next government should follow the “Dutch solution” of ring-fencing cultural spending, on the grounds that cuts do virtually nothing to address national budgetary problems but do untold damage on the ground, and are in any case economically self-defeating. It should also reinstate lottery spending lost through being diverted into funding other causes and the Olympics. For the time being it should forget about looking to the private sector for filling any funding gaps (and endowments look particularly unfeasible at the moment). But it should encourage efficiency, new income generation, new business models and new audiences: widening participation to create a broad base of public enthusiasm for the arts and culture would provide the most persuasive justification for public funding.
What we don’t want after the election is what’s happening in London. The first problem there is the mayor’s attempt to politicise arts funding. The second is the lack of commitment. Roughly as many people earn their living in the creative sector in London as are employed in financial services—something that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago—but while mayor Boris Johnson leaps to defend bankers from being taxed on their bonuses, the London Development Agency has lost its Creative Industries team and no longer has any dedicated budget to support the cultural and creative industries. On top of that, the initiatives trumpeted in the mayor’s November 2008 “Priorities for Culture” document have mostly either not happened or been scaled back.
The lack of ambition and drive in London is pushing culture and creativity back to the margins, when they should be central to any politician’s appreciation of life in the 21st century.
The first task of the new secretary of state will be to convince his or her colleagues in government that the arts and culture—Britain’s most successful and exciting sector, and its main promotional asset—deserves and demands their attention. That should be obvious, but clearly it is not. n
The writer is a visiting professor at London’s City University and associate at the think-tank Demos
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