With an eclectic array of references – from Grayson Perry to Shakespeare, Osip Mandelstam to Danny Boyle – Jeremy Hunt kicked off the new Government’s commitment to the arts in some style.
In an impressive speech at London’s Roundhouse, Hunt has demonstrated an understanding and empathy with a sector which has, historically at least, viewed Conservative governments with a significant degree of suspicion. A far cry from the apparent philistinism of Thatcher, Tebbitt and co, this government is made up of enlighted, public school educated young men (mainly), who appear to share a more traditional Tory approach to the arts.
And that old, mainly philanthropic, tradition of supporting the arts for the masses is what underpinned what Hunt outlined. While Thatcher’s Victorian Values provided echoes of the poor-house, Hunt talked of the role of public libraries and national museums, the benefits of private giving, the importance of supporting “good causes”, and the value of education. A very different set of Victorian ideals indeed.
What will this mean in practice?
Hunt’s commitments are impressive:
- additional funds through the Lottery (he estimates an additional annual £50m for the arts);
- promoting the culture of ‘giving’, and reforming Gift Aid; and
- extending the length of funding agreements for some arts organisations to five years and longer.
This is all good news for the arts, just as we enter what will be the harshest reduction in public spending for more than a generation.
With or without extra funding at the DCMS, the main source of new funding for the arts and broader cultural sector over the last few years has not come from the Arts Council or from DCMS – but from DCLG, RDAs and a range of other government departments (including DWP, DCSF and BIS). Hunt has made it clear that he will fight for the arts. But he needs to do it across Government – not just with Treasury, but with a range of other departments, whose cash could be a lifeline for a vital but fragile sector. It’s no good resisting DCMS cuts, for example, if the DCLG and local authorities see their budgets slashed or if the RDAs are abolished.
There’s the rub. It’s all very well being knowledgeable about the arts, but that probably won’t get you very far when making the case for the arts across Government, not least the Treasury.
And, as the Guardian states in its review of the new Lib-Con partnership: “the culture and arts commitments are the thinnest in the entire coalition document” agreement.
Nominally, only one of the three big ‘promises’ made by Hunt will be affected by Treasury cuts – that relating to the length of funding contracts.
But let’s look at them in more detail:
Philanthropy and private giving: research has shown that giving tends to go down in a recession, not up. And, in any event, it does not replace public funding – it adds to it. In short, the best context in which to enable growth in philanthropic giving is one in which public sector funding is rising, and the economy is booming. Neither look likely for some years to come.
More secure, longer-term funding contracts: look at the small print. Hunt’s speech makes this commitment with the very clear proviso: “in return for coming forward with even more ambitious fundraising programmes”. In other words, secure contracts can only be offered where they are matched with increases in fundraising. Given the difficult financial climate referred to above, even the biggest, most established arts organisations are going to have trouble meeting that demand.
Lottery giving: this could be Hunt’s saving grace. I hope so. But, it’s worth remembering how the first raid on arts lottery funding came about. The establishment of the New Opportunities Fund by Labour in 1997/98, with its funding for out-of-school education and a range of health initiatives, came in response to those sectors being starved of treasury funding. A few years from now, the pressures on the public purse will make it very difficult indeed for any Government to stick to this commitment to divert this ‘additional’ money to the arts.
Hunt appears to have made a good start. But he’s got a long way to go.