The arts must be a right for everyone, not the preserve of a privileged elite

June 21, 2013 2:44 pm

This week, Labour has stood up for the importance of the arts and creative industries – to individuals, communities and the economy all over the country. On Wednesday, I led the first Commons debate on the arts and creative industries in over five years. In Parliament we often debate health, education, the economy. We should recognise that the arts contribute to all of these. And it’s right that we talk about the intrinsic value of the arts – how they move us and challenge us and the great joy that arts and culture bring to our lives.

The arts make money for this country – but they are never just a commodity. From the parents watching a school play, to the nation watching the Olympic opening ceremony, the arts enrich our lives and all of our communities.

We’re a country which produces some of the greatest creativity on the planet – whether it’s music, fashion, film, theatre, broadcasting, design, art, our libraries, our museums – our cultural creativity is admired and envied around the world.

So it was wonderful to see MPs standing up for the arts and creative industries, and to see so many people on twitter joining in with the #artsdebate hashtag.

Labour in government knew the importance of the arts, which is why we massively strengthened the DCMS, brought in free entry to museums and galleries, and trebled the budget for the Arts Council. And we must all remember that public support for the arts is repaid over and over.

For example, there was a £5,000 subsidy to support the stage production of The Woman in Black.  Since then the production company has paid back more than £12m in tax to the Treasury. And public subsidy allows for the willingness of the arts to take risks, like the hugely successful Matilda, which the Royal Shakespeare Company say would just not have been possible without public “seedcorn” funding.

We can all see the massive success stories.  But while we celebrate that success we must not let it mask the reality that the arts are facing a difficult time, especially for smaller organisations and outside London.

Behind the scenes, especially in the regions, there is an arts emergency, with the Arts Council – which provides funds for the arts all around the country – already cut by 35% and with more to come, and local government having their budgets slashed by a third. The situation is so difficult that we have to forge a survival strategy for the arts.

That’s why on Thursday, I went to the Coventry Transport Museum with Shadow Culture Minister Dan Jarvis for the latest meeting of our Creative Councillors Network, which (through the Local Government Association) brings together Labour culture leads from all over the country.

Our Network supports councillors who are facing such difficult choices in local government, bringing them together to discuss the challenges facing them, to discuss the importance of the arts in local communities and share best practice.

There are many things that local authorities can and are doing to support the arts over and above public money.  For example, sharing back office functions, granting licenses, offering up their public spaces for arts events.

Local government support for the arts is vital – as Joe Anderson, the mayor of Liverpool, says, the arts have been the rocket fuel for his city’s economy.

But we also need a coherent strategy for the arts and creative industries from central government.

It’s no good Maria Miller saying that times aren’t difficult for the arts.

It’s no good the government just pointing to current success and saying everything’s fine. It isn’t.

It takes years to build the arts and creative industries up – but they can be destroyed at the stroke of a pen.

The government needs to work with the arts and creative industries to develop a strategy that: ensures the opportunities are there for young people to experience and participate in the arts; that artists and arts organisations have the right infrastructure for funding and finance; that Britain’s creative talent and intellectual property – a precious natural resource – is protected; that there is a specific, separate focus on the nations and regions; and because British creativity is recognised all around the world, we must have co-ordinated work – including  BIS, UKTI, the Foreign Office and the British Council –  to showcase the best of British.

And running through any culture strategy must be a fundamental principle – that the arts must be a right for everyone, not the preserve of a privileged elite. Not only is this important in principle, but to carry on as world leaders we need to continue to draw on the widest possible pool of talent.

Britain’s arts and creative industries are important for our future.  They must have unequivocal backing from the Government, and a strong Secretary of State with a seat at the Cabinet table.

Harriet Harman is the Shadow Secretary of State for Culture and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

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