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The Future of Culture with a Conservative Government

It’s election time in the United Kingdom. Most polls predict that after 14 years of Labour Government, the Conservative Party will soon reign again in Downing Street. Labour and the current Prime Minister Gordon Brown are so unpopular in the country that it will take more than a small wonder to snatch the electoral win away from David Cameron and the Tories. Although very little is known yet about their actual policies, British voters consider the Conservative Party as more competent and better equipped to tackle present and current challenges in virtually every field of policy. Even cultural policy, a field that has traditionally been regarded as an area of Labour expertise, seems to be falling to the Tories.

Ben Bradshaw, the Minister for Culture, Media, Sport, lacks the charm, verve and political instinct of his contender, Jeremy Hunt, who after a “two year charm offensive” enjoys the sympathy of many leading figures in the British art sector as the Guardian journalist Charlotte Higgins, a close observer of the national arts scene, has recently pointed out.

 
Yet, it seems as if the love affair between British arts managers and the Tory party might be over before it has really begun after Hunt recently published a manifesto depicting his plans for the cultural sector. Entitled ‘The Future of the Arts with a Conservative Government’, the document reveals not only a fundamental lack of understanding of the most basic realities of the arts scene, it also proposes a series of aims, policies and initiatives so unrealistic, confused and contradictory that even supporters of the Conservative Party wondered whether Hunt’s main aim was to paralyse the arts sector to such an extent that it wouldn’t be able to criticise a future Tory government.
 
Cool Britannia: New Labour and Cultural Policy
In Hunt’s defence, it has to be said that he is likely to take on a very difficult legacy. First, the recession has affected the UK even more than most European countries. To manage the exploding public deficit, cuts in the already small budget for arts and culture are very likely. Second, Arts and Culture are arguably one of the very few remaining success stories of New Labour.
 
It has often been argued that New Labour’s interest in arts and culture was merely populist. Tony Blair used Britpop musicians, actors and writers to generate a young and hip image for himself and his party which is nowadays known referred to as Cool Britannia. However, in June 1998, Blair invited the directors of leading institutions to a Number 10 summit on how New Labour's policy on the arts might develop. Afterwards, he publicly announced: “We must write the arts into our core script." And only two weeks later the long freeze on arts funding begun by the Conservatives was over, thanks to a three-year settlement worth an extra £290m. Museums, galleries and the performing arts all benefited.
 
The main aims of Labour were to make the most of the economic and social benefits they believed culture could contribute to society. Based on the ideal of democratising culture, they aimed to widen access to cultural activities and tried to overcome barriers to attendance and participation. At the same time they supported the private creative sector through tax breaks and major infrastructure investments. Christopher Frayling, former chairman of Arts Council England, therefore describes the last decade as “a golden age for the arts in Britain." And numbers show he is right. The UK now has the largest and fastest growing cultural economy in the world – the creative industries contribute 6.2% to the UK economy, with nearly 2 million people in creative employment. Two thirds of the adult population enjoy the arts, visit historic sites, and go to museums and galleries. Music contributes nearly £5 billion to the UK economy, with £1.3 billion of that coming as export earnings. The economic benefits of the UK’s major museums and galleries alone are estimated to be £1.5 billion per annum.·The economic impact of theatre is £2.6 billion a year. In 2009 the 52 major theatres in central London, which represent a mix of subsidised and commercial theatres and productions, had their best year ever, worth £504 million in box office receipts. British visual artists, conductors, musicians, composers, actors and film-directors are among the very best in the world.
 
Three core principals
In the face of such overwhelming success it is curious that Hunt comes to the conclusion in his appraisal of the current British arts scene that these achievements are generally the results of the last Conservative government, on whose policies he now intends to build. His approach, he proclaims, will be based on three core principles. The Tory government will promote excellence in the arts, widen access to, engagement with and participation in cultural activities and most importantly will establish a mixed economy model in order to secure and improve long-term funding for the arts.
 
The promotion of excellence
According to Hunt’s plans, publicly funded arts organisations will be liberated from ever-growing bureaucracy to be able to focus predominantly on artistic goals. This will be achieved by reducing the existing myriad of funding criteria and by awarding multi-year funding schemes to arts organisations that have generated critically acclaimed artistic work of outstanding quality. Museums will also become more independent through a new bill that establishes an administrative status to the sector and liberates it from most of the legal constraints imposed on public bodies.
 
While all this makes sense on paper, Hunt doesn’t mention that the large number of existing non-artistic funding criteria are a legacy of the last Conservative Government and the major cuts it imposed on the [public and] arts sector. In order to survive, the arts sector not only had to professionalise, but also lobbied for funding on the basis of the assumed economic and social benefits of arts and cultural (which now form the majority of funding criteria). Despite repeated attempts to reform the Arts Council, Labour didn’t manage to solve the problem of exploding bureaucracy. It seems highly unlikely, however, that yet another reform, which would be the third major one in the last five years, would solve the problem. It should also be mentioned that the three years of funding that the ACE has awarded to organisations regularly funded under Labour is already a major improvement over the yearly decisions made under the last Tory Government which denied most arts organisations the opportunity to undertake longterm planning.
 
Extending access
To widen access to arts and culture has arguably been the main concern – and correspondingly the main effect – of Labour’s cultural policies. Building on Labour’s success, Hunt’s Tory party promises to broaden participation in and engagement with arts and culture even further. One of the main strategies to do so is to provide cultural organisations with the latest tools and know-how to enable them to make the most out of the digital revolution. Another is to consolidate art policies in schools in order to guarantee that all children will receive a sound cultural education and have the opportunity to learn to play an instrument. In the face of Labour’s staggering efforts and successes in the field, it has to be doubted that the Conservatives will be able to make any major progress in these areas. In fact, Labour’s plans to further extend the exposure of school children to arts and culture failed mainly for the simple reason that they would have required an additional five hours of class to the already busy weekly schedule of the average school child.
 
The mixed economy
The main reforms Hunt’s manifesto delineates are concerned with a reformation of the public funding system. In the face of insurmountable public deficits, the Tories plan to establish a number of initiatives combining private and public sources to secure the financial future of British arts organisations. They promise to restore the aims of the National Lottery to serve its original good causes and to reduce the administrative costs of the main funding bodies by more than 50%. The main goal however is to make fundraising easier and more attractive for arts organisation – by introducing new legal and fiscal frameworks that enable arts organisation to build up endowments and by multiplying the number of matched grants -- funding awards that are dependant on the arts bodies raising some money themselves.
 
While the manifesto doesn’t spell out the need for such a reform, it is obvious that the Tory government will drastically cut public spending on the arts. In fact, George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, has already announced that the cultural sector will have to contribute to the consolidation of public expenses. However the initiatives Hunt presented are not likely to balance out any cuts in the British arts sector’s already meagre financial provisions. While philanthropy is doubtless more common in Britain than on the continent, it is still far less common than in the United States and provides just a small fraction of the arts sector’s income. To expand private donation will require a major cultural shift, which will need not only resources and money to generate, but time -- time that the sector doesn’t have. As the US example also demonstrates: in times of a recession, private donations are quick to dry up. It will also be impossible to simply redirect money from the National Lottery back to the arts. What Hunt conceals is that the proceeds from the National Lottery are needed to partly fund the 2012 Olympic Games of London. It’s unrealistic to expect a Tory government to find alternative streams of funding for the largest British political project to improve international standing and reputation.
 
Critics of the Tory plans have also pointed out that Hunt’s ideas favour large cultural organisations which already received the majority of public money. New tax regulations would minimise the work of companies that have already invested in professional and effective development departments and created close relationships with their audiences – companies which because of their reputation are also more likely to attract private donations. In contrast, smaller companies will have to stretch their already strained reources even further and focus more on fundraising. This development might lead to a general decline in artistic quality and innovation. “I am afraid that these plans are likely to result in less diverse and innovative artistic work”, explains Jean N., the general manager of small musical theatre company based in the Midlands. By more likely to benefit, the Tories demonstrate a lack of understanding of the interdependency of the arts sector in Britain. Leading British directors, musicians and actors have almost exclusively learnt their trade in small-scale companies where they had the relative freedom to experiment and develop their particular skills, talents and ideas. Considering the fact that these small companies that form the hotbed of aesthetic innovation and renewal in Britain receive only a small fraction of the total public endowment for the arts makes the Tories’ proposals even less comprehensible.
 
It is therefore, that critics have drawn their attention to the historical animosities between the Tory Party and the cultural sector. Stuart L., who has worked for a series of leading national theatre companies, remembers that productions at the National Theatre dealt almost exclusively with Margaret Thatcher and the horrific effects of her policies. “From today’s perspective, it seems surreal that we gave one person so much attention, spent so much creative energy on ridiculing her. Now I would say that a lot of the work was rather predictable regarding message and content, but back then we were all motivated by the mission to induce political change. And we never felt more powerful as when we heard rumours about how much she hated our latest efforts.”
 
It is debatable whether the Tory Party really fears the impact of arts and culture on the electorate so much that it aims to smother critical voices well in advance. However, Hunt’s proposals to cut the power and influence of the Arts Council by limiting its expenses support such suspicions. Historically, British arts policies are based on an arm’s length principle. While the government provides the necessary funds, it is an autonomous body of experts, the Arts Council, who decides about its distribution. Despite obvious flaws, the Arts Council has to follow political agendas given by the Ministry for Culture. This principle has remained sacrosanct in British cultural policy discourse until recently. And while Hunt officially subscribes to the main ideas of this principle, he rarely misses a chance to undermine it. The Conservative manifesto can be read as an attempt to extend the government’s influence on artistic policies and the programmes presented. Jean N. for instance believes that the funding structure might lead to less artistic freedom: “To get public funds, you are required to raise private money. Private donors are in their tastes often quite conservative and just want to see a certain kind of work. To get their money you are expected to meet their expectations and for us that would mean to be a lot less innovative and cutting edge. This whole manifesto is an exercise in promoting traditional, you might even say reactionary, aesthetic ideals.”
 
Banking on Culture
Of course it remains to be seen what effects the ideas proposed by the Tory manifesto will have in practice. Facing considerable public criticism Jeremy Hunt has already distanced himself from a number of the positions he proclaimed in his manifesto and promised to lobby on behalf of the arts sector to spare it from further cuts. One of the positive effects of his paper might be that it served as some kind of wake-up call. For the very first time leading British arts and heritage organisations have recently joined forces and launched their very own manifesto for the future of the arts in Britain. Demonstrating the myriad of ways the sector provides value for money and generates social and economic benefits, the document fittingly ’Cultural Capital: A Manifesto for the Future’ argues that Britain could only suffer from cuts in public spending for the arts. Let’s hope that Jeremy Hunt will follow this manifesto and not his own.

 

Author/Source: A story by Quirin Gerstenecker, Leeds
Management Topic: Policy & Research
Cultural Area: General
Submitted by editor on Apr 09, 2010