Last night, I had the pleasure of attending the first provocation by the Warwick Commission into The Future of Culture. It was held in the fairly plush surroundings of the British Library and chaired by BBC newsreader Jane Hill. On the panel were Robert Peston, BBC Economics Editor, Alan Davey, Chief Executive of Arts Council England (ACE), sociologist and lecturer at Goldsmiths College, Bev Skeggs and former Director-General of the CBI, Sir Richard Lambert. This illustrious panel proceeded to debate the value of culture, generally defined as ‘the arts’ and how best to put this value across to central Government.
We began with a witty and well informed presentation from Robert Peston, who had the good grace to admit that the economics of the culture sector weren’t his usual area. That said, he produced a compelling argument against using economic value to justify continued public subsidy of the arts. Given that just about every Government review (including the one launched last week by Labour MPs Harriet Harman and Chuka Umunna) focuses on economics to the general exclusion of all else, this came as something of a surprise.
The panel discussed at length the relatively puny amount the Treasury gives to DCMS versus the rest of public spending. This led Richard Lambert to suggest DCMS should be gotten rid of, which drew horrified gasps from the audience. It did seem clear that the panel weren’t overly impressed with DCMS. There were some (to my mind) thinly veiled digs at there not being someone in Government to fight for the arts. In the entire debate, only one audience member mentioned Maria Miller, which suggests she isn’t having a great impact on the sector.
Ideas around scrapping arts education also came in for a thorough drubbing, though Jane Hill was quick to squash too much debate on this, as it will be the focus of another provocation to be held later in the year. I predict that one will get pretty lively, the general atmosphere of this first provocation was fairly jovial and pleasant. I got the sense that the panel were preaching to the converted, everyone in the room (which really did contain the great and the good of the arts world) adored the arts, passionately believed in public subsidy and was desperate for a big idea on how to convince the Coalition of the value of culture. We didn’t discover this big idea, but certainly the Commission has found talented and dedicated individuals to help them discover it.
The main points I took away with me were that we need to look more closely at the distribution of funds the culture sector does get, rather than fighting for more money. Not everyone agrees that London gets an unfair proportion of public funds, though national organisations based in the capital should do more to get their work out across the country. Interestingly, the Commission is focusing on England, not the UK. League of Culture is very firm about wanting to bring all 4 regions of the UK into any discussions, but I presume the Commission is focusing on England because of funding irregularities in the other regions.
Bev Skeggs, a proud Northerner, was quick to remind us of Grayson Perry’s worries that the working classes were being eroded in art. Certainly England’s latest crop of Bright Young Actors are all educated in posh public schools (think Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston). As it is now far harder to use the welfare state to provide an income while creating art, and with tuition fees for arts courses rising, it is likely that future artists will only come from well off, upper middle class stock. This immediately cuts down on the amount of talented arts workers England will be able to produce.
If any conclusions were drawn, it is that the culture sector isn’t done fighting. League of Culture has been set up to spearhead this fight, but the culture sector can only win if it works together to form compelling arguments to demonstrate the holistic, intrinsic value of the work it produces. I wish the Warwick Commission every luck in its research and look forward to hearing more at future provocations.
This report was written by League of Culture’s Director, Vicky Prior, and is not intended to wholly reflect the views of the League.