Saturday, March 17, 2007
Arts and Labour
In fact, a glance at what Labour has achieved will reveal that it has done to the arts what it does best everywhere: achieve a brief flash of political glory based on an ill-considered and unsustainable premise, and then fail to back up the position it has put everyone into with real support. Some points. The National Lottery was introduced by the Conservatives with a very tightly focussed brief: its contributions would go to millennium projects, the arts, museums, galleries and heritage, and sport. The Tories hated paying for the arts, but they knew very well that cutting their budget led to nothing but high-profile slanging from the arts world. So the lottery was the answer. The Tories also knew the difference between micro- and macro-management. They set a strong structure of accountability for museums and galleries - no bad thing - but they avoided meddling in the day-to-day.
By contrast, what has Labour done? Introduce free admission, which remains to this day one of the most conspicuous subsidies for the better-off. Percentages of low-income families going to museums remain almost unchanged from what they were before Labour came to power. At the same time, costs across the national museums have shot up due to increased wear and tear. Cleaning, maintenance, replacement, security, basic supplies like loo-rolls, all of these rise with more attendances. Yet instead of putting more funding behind this, the grants of museums and galleries are effectively being cut. Purchase grants have dwindled to almost nothing. The National Lottery now has had to fund "good causes" (ie charities and anything Labour decides it should fund but does not want to raise taxes for), and now a large slice of the ineptly-costed Olympics. The size of the pot available to the arts has shrunk while the costs have gone up.
The Tories made clear that claiming a grant from the National Lottery for a major project should be conditional upon the institution being able to absorb the running costs of that project into its existing government grant. Not a great or particularly realistic deal, but a legal requirement - no more grant to fund Lottery projects. The arrival of New Labour into power, with its promise of free admission, saw the Tate Gallery effectively put a gun to the government's head and say: if you won't give us additional grant we will have to charge for admission to Tate Modern. And Chris Smith, the Minister of Culture, of course immediately rolled over and gave them more grant to avoid such an appalling prospect.
At the same time Labour has meddled, endlessly. Access and inclusiveness targets may sound worthy, but they ignore the basic rule of human nature: that for every one person who enjoys a visit to a museum, someone else will hate it and prefer to watch the football or go hang-gliding or take in a film. Yet management man-years have been spent developing access strategies, carrying out research and focus groups, preparing reports. focussing on presentation rather than substance. The result is the reverse of a culture of excellence or a sense of confidence amongst museum and gallery managers. Instead we now have policy driven by populism, unchallenging exhibitions, potboilers (yet another Impressionist exhibition, anyone?), celebrities and a desperate seach for excluded minorities to cater for. These are the ways your institution wins ministerial favour. The wholesome distrust most Tories had for the arts at least led them to steer well clear and leave the world of museums and galleries largely to manage itself against some clear targets.
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