If you want arts for all, nurture the roots…

If the Minister for Culture really wants the arts to be accessible for all, his government needs to reverse some of their policies pretty damn fast, says Helen Wallace


Arts organisations need to be accessible; embrace diversity, and stop giving internships to their privileged friends. That’s the message from our new Minister for Culture Media and Sport, Sajid Javid.

According to Mr Javid, growing up in Bristol, he was denied access to ‘culture’.

A fan of Star Trek and U2, the nearest he got to an arts event was seeing the Bollywood film Sholay. It’s a crying shame.

But wait a minute. He was fortunate enough to live in a country where the arts did receive public subsidy. The whole cultural success for which Britain is famous didn’t ‘come out of the blue,' as Harriet Harman said in her own speech yesterday, at the Roundhouse: ‘it is built on years of public support and investment.’  He would have been taught music, drama, art and literature in his school. There would have been concession tickets to the Bristol Old Vic and Colston Hall, a free library and Pissarros and Renoirs gratis at Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery.  What’s more, there was a steady stream of high quality arts programming coming through BBC television, radio, and Channel 4. He may have felt it was not ‘for him’ – a critical point – but it was there for the taking.

So, this isn’t really about access per se. We shouldn’t need to rehearse again the tired arguments that it’s cheaper to see Tosca at ENO and King Lear at the National Theatre than it is to catch Justin Bieber at the O2 or attend a premiere league football match. It’s about cultural norms. It’s about education. It’s about inspiring role models in the arts and media (British-Asian talents Meera Syal, Akram Khan, Monica Ali, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Nitin Sawhney and Talvin Singh all spring to mind). I can think of countless initiatives across music and the arts that reach out to different communities. But there is no doubt that networks need to be wider, more dynamic and more imaginative, and more mentors need to be found.

Political leadership is more or less absent here. The British Museum is accessible to all, but it took becoming a Minister for Culture for Mr Javid to set foot inside it. This is a government that spends less than half of 1% of its budget on the arts. The message is clear: we're not interested.

It might not be much, but it’s tax-payers’s money you’re spending, says Mr Javid, and that comes with responsibilities. Where has he been? Has he ever seen an Arts Council application form? There’s not an organisation or performing group in this country who can apply for any government money without a raft of access, diversity and outreach responsibilities to fulfil.

He also complains, with eye-popping naivety, that entry-level positions come with low pay, encouraging the trustafarian intern rather than those from poor backgrounds. Apparently, it’s ‘unacceptable’. Yes, of course it is! And it’s not just entry-level positions. Perhaps he should look into the earnings of some of our most talented performers, composers, writers, dancers and artists. He’ll be in for a shock. We’re a long way from Deutsche Bank here in the world of arts.

In praising the Arts Council’s own £15million Creative Employment Programme, he provides his own answer – and an own goal. The only way arts jobs can keep above the minimum wage is with sustained levels of public subsidy. Commercial sponsorship and charitable giving follows public support: you need both. And his own government has not only cut the Arts Council of England’s budget by 30% following the 2010 spending review, but announced a further £11.6m cut by 2015. Now local councils are being advised to cut their contribution to arts funding and education.

So, for his next bright suggestion: there are lots of rich people out there, how about trying to do some of your own fundraising? Can anyone identify a single organisation, however small, which does not already spend a disproportionate percentage of its time and resource on fundraising? The arts have been at the cutting edge of crowd-funding, and micro-financing (Britten Sinfonia’s Musically Gifted and BCMG’s Sound Investment schemes are two of many). Of course, well-publicised tax breaks are all to the good, but the mood for patronage has been decidedly muted in the last seven years. As a banker, Javid will know why.

He’s asking an undercapitalised and overstretched sector to perform an outreach miracle with less support than it has ever had, with the double whammy of undermining accessible arts education.

Deputy leader of the Labour Party Harriet Harman, rightly, locates part of the solution to developing diverse audiences in schools. There you have an opportunity to introduce children from 4-18, regardless of background, to arts at the highest level, and to normalise participation. This government has cut teacher training places in arts education by 35%, and the numbers of specialist arts teachers has fallen. They are about to decimate music hubs. Time is short, but if Mr Javid means what he says, he needs to have some strong words with the Department of Education. Everyone stand back…

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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