Not only are the arts and culture crucial for general wellbeing and a positive force in terms of education and development, they are hugely important for the economy of the UK – and not just in London.
But where the white paper could have been a positive force, even a quick reading illustrates that it’s full of empty promises, with words such as “support” and “encourage” rendered meaningless by lack of commitments on funding (even though it specifically quotes the Prime Minister as an enthusiast of “public-funded” arts and culture) and by the government’s own policies on, say, education, where it fully intends to remove all schools from having to teach the national curriculum that this paper says has importance to culture and arts.
The devil is always in the detail – or the lack thereof. So here goes, with an analysis of approximately half of the document in question.
On page 5, in the introduction by Ed Vaizey, the minister of state for culture, communications and creative industries, it states: “The increased appetite for culture was evident after Culture Secretary Chris Smith introduced free admission to museums in 2001.”
This is disingenuous, since 2001 saw a re-introduction of free admission.
The 1980s had seen attacks on cultural public spending, and pressures from the Conservative government of the day to introduce admission saw many museums and galleries do so.
Those that didn’t – including the British Museum, the Tate and the National Gallery – saw visitor numbers rise, while some that introduced charging saw substantial declines. The V&A introduced a £5 admission in 1997 and saw visitor numbers halved. (1)
And post-2001, the white paper says, that was repeated as, “in the next decade, visitor numbers soared” when admission fees were dropped.
The paper quotes Chancellor George Osborne in his last autumn statement as saying that our “creative industries are ... ‘one of the best investments we can make as a nation’.” So let's look for the investment.
It invokes the Bard, while Mr Vaizey himself also notes that it will “look at how culture can be used in place-making – and if ever a town was shaped by culture it is Stratford-on-Avon, where every year Shakespeare brings 4.9 million visitors to the town”. This is perhaps unfortunate, given what is happening in the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ – and not least Lancaster (2), where most museums are on the cusp of closure as a direct result of cuts to local government funding, even as the city tries to utilise its own extraordinary heritage to draw visitors in.
The introduction notes that: “When we look at new models for funding, we find that our experience with Shakespeare shows us the way. In Barking a community-focussed outdoor production of The Merchant of Venice is being crowdfunded to the tune of £80,000 and has raised £25,000 from a local property company”.
Yet only a few pages earlier, the first words in the white paper, after the contents, are:
“If you believe in publicly-funded arts and culture as I passionately do, then you must also believe in equality of access, attracting all, and welcoming all.
“Rt Hon David Cameron MP”
“Publicly-funded arts and culture” now appears to have a new definition – crowdfunding (which requires disposable income) and gifts from business.
On page 8, it states: “Everyone should enjoy the opportunities culture offers, no matter where they start in life.
“We will put in place measures to increase participation in culture, especially among those who are currently excluded from the opportunities that culture has to offer.
“In particular, we will ensure that children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are inspired by and have new meaningful relationships with culture.”
It’s difficult to imagine that anyone would disagree with this.
The document explains that the new apprenticeships levy will mean that “our larger cultural organisations” will be expected to “take on apprentices and promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace.” Expectation, though, does not mean anything to back it up.
Funded bodies will need to publish strategies for increased access (which will cost them resources, of course).
On page 9, it states that the government will work with various bodies to promote culture as good for wellbeing, while a “new £40 million Discover England fund will showcase” the new programmes, including UK City of Culture, the Great Exhibition of the North.
It’s simply unfortunate that, at the same time, Lancashire County Council (as just one example) is planning on axing “40 libraries, five museums and two adult education centres”.
These include the cuts impacting on Lancaster, plus many, many more, including Blackpool tram maintenance, which will presumably not be good for an area that is already seriously struggling. (3)
All the subsequent talk of “new cultural partnerships” and a “Great Place scheme” and “Heritage Action Zones in England” is meaningless in the face of such devastating cuts and losses.
“We will encourage councils and owners to make empty business premises available to cultural organisations on a temporary basis.”
Because “cultural organisations” can just spring up suddenly and take over such premises and put something on without any other resources that require financing. Oh, wait – that’s where the crowdfunding and business patronage come in (not the PM’s “publicly-funded” bit, you note).
“Technology offers many opportunities to bring our culture to many more people in many different ways. We will work with our cultural institutions to make the UK one of the world’s leading countries for digitised public collections and use of technology to enhance the online experience of users.”
You won’t be able to look at anything in the flesh, but we’re going to digitise Lancaster’s collections so that you can look at them online after the museums are closed (it won’t help the city itself – unless you have to pay to view – and it’ll create and sustain bugger all in the way of jobs, but whoopy-do! It’s digital!
If this isn’t (an extreme but entirely logical interpretation of) the case, then it’s just more meaningless twaddle. Is there any evidence that people don’t go to museums and galleries because the ‘online digital experience’ isn’t what it could be?
Personally, I never use audio guides or anything other than brief notes when visiting an exhibition etc – because it gets in the way, in my opinion: as do those concentrating on such things rather than the exhibits.
Page 10 sees talk of the UK’s global “soft power” (not the bombs that gave us our “mojo” back) and of building on the “GREAT Britain campaign”, which has “increased investment” (it doesn’t say from where, but this will apparently attract “world-class events to the UK”).
This year, “we will support Shakespeare Lives”, although at no point does it elucidate on what concrete form that government “support” will take.
Page 11 notes that: “We have a successful model of cultural investment in which public funding works alongside earned income, private sector finance and philanthropy. This mixture of income streams provides the basis for a thriving and resilient cultural sector.”
Well, except where the public funding is withdrawn (see Lancashire etc), while it’s difficult to see how the ad hoc nature of the proposal that councils and businesses should loan out empty properties will in any way promote stability and, therefore, quality.
“We will continue to support growth through investment and incentives”. Interesting that it does not mention the public funding that it quotes the Prime Minister stressing.
Of course, there are forms of VAT refunds to help, while a new tax relief for museums and galleries is to be introduced next year (someone tell Lancashire to hang on!)
“We will establish a new Commercial Academy for Culture to improve and spread commercial expertise in the cultural sectors,” because making money is what culture is all about or should be – see, Lancashire: that’s been your problem.
There’ll be a new Private Investment Survey and “tailored reviews” and a “wide-ranging review of the museums sector” ...
The paper makes clear that investment in culture has “enormous economic value” (p13) – “in 2014, the economic contribution of museums, galleries, libraries and the arts was £5.4 billion,” while “heritage tourism accounts for 2% of GDP, contributing £26 billion per year” (p16) and “research by the British Council shows that cultural attractions are the most commonly mentioned factor in terms of what makes the UK an attractive place to visit while the arts was the third most commonly mentioned reason”.
On page 13: “it [the white paper] explains how the government will help to secure the role of culture in our society”.
As a whole, the paper makes much of saying that the arts and culture are important for all and should be available to all. You’ll find absolutely no disagreement here.
It says that all “state-funded schools” must provide a broad and balanced curriculum, nurturing the “spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils”. Again, no disagreement.
Apparently the national curriculum “sets the expectation” that pupils will study cultural subjects. “New, gold-standard GCSEs and A levels have been introduced in these subjects”. (p23)
Unfortunately, since academies and free schools do not have to teach the national curriculum, and all schools are set to be academised ...
In fact, let’s be even clearer. While academies and free schools are subject to that “broad and balanced curriculum”, the funding agreement simply means that “they are required to ensure their curriculum:
“includes English, maths and science;
“includes Religious Education, although the nature of this will depend on whether the school has a faith designation;
“secures access to independent, impartial careers advice for pupils in years 9-11; and
“includes sex and relationship education (SRE).” (4)
On page 22, it says: “The majority of the organisations supported by Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund are committed to working with children and young people, while schemes such as the Family Arts Festival and the Summer Reading Challenge are crucial in introducing young families to their local cultural organisations, especially libraries”.
Excellent. Except where those libraries have closed or are slated to close. See Lancashire – and beyond. As of August 2015, 337 libraries have closed in the UK since 2009-10. (5)
On page 23, we learn that there’s going to be a new “cultural citizens programme” [sic – I don’t know what happened to the possessive apostrophe]. The government will “encourage schools” to use the pupil premium for cultural education, while the Pupil Premium Awards will “highlight the benefits of cultural education”.
This is a close look at just under half the white paper. You can find it all here.
But it should be clear from this that, while the general tone is entirely agreeable, it is nothing to get excited about, for the reasons made very clear above. It’s all sleight of hand; appearing to give (a little) with one hand while removing a lot with the other.
Or perhaps the Bard might have suggested that it was full of a sort of “sound and fury, Signifying nothing”.