Yesterday’s inaugural State of The Arts Conference was framed by curtain-raiser and curtain-closer performances from the Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw and the Conservative Shadow Jeremy Hunt.Both men have a high level of fluency in the lingo of culture with all its complexities and nuances. Both demonstrate a commitment, passion and understanding of the arts’ intrinsic value as well as their crucial value to the creative economy. Both are fully-signed up to the essential need to subsidise the arts to achieve excellence and engagement.
And both are imagining the future in the context of the impact of the recession and reduced public expenditure overall. This will inevitably mean less funding for the arts whether routed through the Lottery, annual expenditure through DCMS or through arts funding through local authorities, or from private investment.
How different will the manifestos be? That will largely depend on the party politics and election strategy. The time honoured themes of interest to the arts community are funding and policy.
Jeremy Hunt promised that, under his leadership in a conservative government,there would be a ‘golden age for the arts’. He laid out commitments yesterday to return lottery funds to the arts and to create a more philanthropic culture for private investment. He set out targets to reduce administrative costs in ACE and to encourage the building up of endowments in cultural institutions. He also indicated that he would look to take a firmer hold of cultural policy were he to be in charge at DCMS and to stop what he called ‘sub-contracting of policy’ to bodies such as Ofcom and ACE.
But manifestos and Culture Secretaries are not the only indicators of a political party’s commitment to the arts. The arts community certainly took note of Shadow Chancellor George Osborne’s speech at the Tate in November last year when he pledged support for culture not just for its economic impacts, but because “art matters for art’s sake”.
The arts community is also influenced by the likely performance of the Culture Secretary both as an effective Champion for Culture within government and as a leader who can deliver sustained improvement – and this means being in the job long enough. As Hunt and Bradshaw have developed a deeper and broader understanding of the arts and relationships with its many key players, they understand the need to stay in the Culture Chair for a decent length of time. Hunt pledged his avowed commitment to retain the role of Culture Secretary and that of Ed Vaizey as Arts Minister, should they get in. As Bradshaw apologised for the fact that there has been a bit too much change before him, he likewise expressed his desire stay in the job for some time. None of them can guarantee this of course but its to be hoped that we avoid the musical chairs which so often unseat good ministers.
In Scotland, where we have had 9 culture ministers in 10 years, we should take note.