Challenges for the Arts – response to Maria Miller (et al)

Maria Miller has made her speech and many have responded, mostly we are rehearsing the old arguments, couched in terms that Government can understand.  I am going on Monday to a meeting of the movement ‘What Next’ which seeks to look at what happens to the arts now and in the future.  In preparation for that meeting I wanted to clarify what I thought were the key issues we should, as arts practitioners and supporters, focus on.  So here are my thoughts – comments are very welcome (although trolling not so much so) as creative input is really what it’s all about.


Arts education has been demoted by successive governments to either an ‘add-on’ subject or only valued as vocational training.

We need proper arts education pre-exam choice in order that all pupils understand the value of arts for themselves – creative thinking and engagement rather than creation of products, or development of specific skills, should be the aim of any pre-exam curriculum.

Examinations – all pupils should be able to select at least two arts subjects for both GCSE and A levels – there should not be restrictions on what people choose.  More focus should be given in the arts curricula to understanding the basis of art and creative thinking than demonstrating specific skills – vocational training has a place in education but not in academic examinations.

Vocational training – more value should be given to vocational training in the arts so that it can be a truly parallel stream for those who prefer the practical to the academic – conflating the two has done no favours to anyone.

Degrees and Research – funding for degrees and research should be reinstated –more needs to be done to encourage existing arts funders to fund scholarships, bursaries and fellowships in the arts to strengthen the academic basis.

Intellectual Property rights

The premise on which the Government is pushing through open access publishing should ring warning bells all over the arts world.

That premise is that when research has been funded from tax payers’ money the tax payer should get free and open access to the published research and be able to use the information contained therein on a Commons licence basis – only being required to attribute it to the original source.  This is a strange precedent to set and one that I believe the Government has not thought through.  Does that mean that anything funded by tax payers’ money should be free?  Are the rights to plays developed with Arts Council money now ours as tax-payers rather than the authors?  Let us be vigilant about the wording of any funding contracts.

More importantly this sends avery clear message to the public about their rights to access and use this information. This reinforces what we are already seeing, that the easy accessibility of images, writing, video, music via the internet creates in people the idea that everything is free and theirs for the taking.  I know of quite responsible law-abiding people who think that if they can download an audio book from a library cd then why not? They would, of course, think it crazy to take the same book in paper form and have it photocopied, and would never dream of actually stealing a library book.  However, because it is so easy, convenient (and untraceable) they don’t see it as theft – it does not remove the object from use by other people, they simply get a free copy.

Whilst loss of library income isn’t going to cause many publishers sleepless nights – the loss of income in the music and cinema/dvd industries is much more significant and more needs to be done to educate the public about IP and copyright – right from the point at which children start using computers.

Funding for the Arts

I have put this last, because education and IP tend to get ignored under a flood of highly emotive comment around funding.  I just think that if there was better arts education and better understanding of IP there might also be better understanding of the debate around arts funding.

Looking at the comments by Telegraph readers on Nick Hytner’s response to Maria Miller is interesting!  It is clear that our main challenge is changing not just the minds of those holding the purse strings but those voting for them and that is a challenge indeed!

The mechanisms of arts funding have changed little in the last 50 or so years, the Government funds some things – including big festivals, national events and some institutions, private philanthropy and corporate sponsors fund other things or part fund with the Government, and commercial organisations do manage to make a profit and self-fund other things.

What has changed in those years, and particularly since the late 80s/90s is the idea of why the Government should put money into the arts.  No Government money should ever be spent without demonstrable benefit to the people of the country of that Government – that’s a pretty basic democratic ideal – the problem comes in the way in which we define ‘benefit’.

In the past that benefit from the arts could be seen as the psycho-social benefit that arts bring to the individual, to communities and to the nation as a whole (for example the Festival of Britain or the Cultural Olympiad) – that psycho-social benefit could be seen as enough in itself – it did not have to relate back to economic benefit or a balance sheet of pounds expended versus pounds made/saved in other areas.  Adding to the ‘good’ of the nation was enough.

Since Thatcherism and the increasing immersion of not just the UK but the world into a Capitalist Reality all human interactions are becoming transactional.  Everything has a value in relation to everything else and fundamentally that value will be able to be defined economically and monetarily.  Because this has become a normalised way of thinking about the world around us, arts professionals have been forced to adopt this way of ‘thinking’ when dealing with government and commercial funders in order to ‘speak their language’ – many of us don’t believe in this but if the majority of the people we are presenting our arguments to do, then we must argue on this basis.  Our arguments are still strong – as demonstrated by many commentators on Maria Miller’s recent speech.  The problem is that arguing on this basis endorses the commercialisation of arts.  It also leads to the question  ‘if the non-profit making sector is supporting the profit-making sector, how come the latter isn’t putting more back into the arts?’ – which is whole different can of beans.

I think we need to find ways of formulating the case for the arts that don’t pander to an economic value system but demonstrate more clearly that the arts can help to create a new more sustainable UK, where wellbeing, happiness and social cohesion are the most important indicators of the country’s standing in the world rather than just a better balance sheet.

The government (and politicians generally – I am not excluding the opposition from any of the remarks above as the previous government was equally culpable) has a vested interest in not promoting the arts – certainly not as something that engages people in creative thinking above simple consumption.  With creative thinking we might be able to find a better way to run this country and a better way to create a sustainable economy (for just one example see Tim Jackson’s excellent book ‘Prosperity without Growth’) – we might create citizens who question and challenge the status quo and who ask for more than our current political system gives.  We might demand more than zombie politics and zombie economics.  Now why would any government want to support that?  Demoting arts education and cutting arts funding are politically driven acts – this could not have been made clearer than the recent egregious spending of £3.5m on the hagiography of Margaret Thatcher: “No money for the arts, but we do have money to spend on our own propaganda” – and let’s not just blame the Tories for that because the Labour front bench and past Prime Ministers were hardly standing up and protesting about it – they too have bought into the monetary thinking so let’s not kid ourselves that a change of Government will solve all ills.

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1 Response to Challenges for the Arts – response to Maria Miller (et al)

  1. TVClaw says:

    Every day I walk past the local library, the pediment of which bears testament to the fact that Andrew Carnegie paid for it to be built. Arts funding has always been a mix of private and public patronage, but for the Culture Secretary (an Economist, natch) to say that the ‘focus must be on culture’s economic impact,’ suggests that the arts are now in danger of being reliant solely on interested philanthropy. What if there are no more Andrew Carnegies, George Peabodies or Denis Mahons waiting in the wings?

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