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Editor’s Letter: Will any UK politicians speak up about culture?

22 April 2015

From the May issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here 

What attitude will the next British government take towards the cultural life of the nation? The answer is very clear: who knows. And that’s not just because the forthcoming general election is too close to call. It’s because politicians seem to be observing a blanket silence on the subject. I write this some three weeks before the country heads to the polls, with politics dominating the media, and am yet to hear a single statement from any mainstream political party – or any of the loony ones, for that matter – setting out their stall for the country’s vast and varied culture sector.

That means nothing on how our museum sector might be supported; nothing on how young artists and designers might be encouraged or championed; nothing on what theatre, dance, opera, film or literature contribute to the national economy. Nothing even about how lifetime giving, on whatever scale, might be properly encouraged through tax breaks. There’s been a bit about football, at least, and a lot about the Labour leader’s ex-girlfriends.

All of which suggests several things. One, of course, is that culture policies are not vote winners. This is understandable, to the degree that people are most likely to vote according to the perceived economic and social impact that any future government will have on them. But it becomes less so when one considers that some 1.68 million people are employed in the ‘creative industries’ of this country (according to statistics released by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport in 2012) – in other words, more than five per cent of the UK labour market. The UK culture sector directly effects a lot of people’s daily lives before it even begins to colour the intellectual or leisure pursuits of others.

Secondly, there’s the argument that arts and culture are not seen as government business in many quarters – including in just about every department in Whitehall apart from the DCMS and, because of the long-cherished arm’s-length principle that dictates cultural management and funding in this country, within the arts sector itself. (But remember Christopher Frayling’s memorable complaint, during his stint as head of the Arts Council during the last Labour government, about how that arm had been eroded to almost ‘Venus de Milo length’.) Fair enough: but there is still significant enough central investment in the arts of this country that some indication about its future would be welcome.

Which brings me to a third point. No news is surely bad news, at least insofar as funding is concerned. With all main parties committed to further cuts in spending, yet unwilling to spell out where the axe will fall, the UK culture budget looks set to take another big hit whatever the outcome of the election. As Sharon Heal, director of the Museums Association, writes in this issue, there are likely to be some hard decisions to make in the museum sector in particular. Grant-in-aid for national museums, local authority funding for regionals and grants from public bodies will shrink still further. Debates about charging for entrance to nationals will be reignited, and there will be more Sekhemka statues flogged off as regionals look to balance the books.

Into this mix, four of the country’s most important museums and galleries will see new leaders in place over the course of no more than a year: the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, at which Gabriele Finaldi and Nicholas Cullinan respectively take up the reins this summer; the British Museum, whose redoubtable current director, Neil MacGregor, has just announced his intention to retire; and Tate Britain, from where Penelope Curtis will depart for the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon.

These national museums all face their own challenges and opportunities – among them the unresolved industrial dispute at the National Gallery, and the acidic debate about Tate Britain’s recent role and record. But however these new directors succeed or fail in their respective institutions – and nobody would wish them the latter – they will also need to take on a public mantle as cultural leaders at a time when the entire sector is bound to feel pressure. Let’s hope they speak up when the politicians do eventually find their voices.

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Related Articles

Regional museums are in crisis. Can they survive? (Thomas Marks)

Inquiry: Hard times for the UK’s regional museums? (Jack Wakefield)

Arts Council Funding: Winners and Losers

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