Friday, 1 October 2010

Facing Art Attacks

Why a Coalition is Required

Over the past few weeks I've repeatedly been asked to demonstrate that I value the arts and to help save the arts. I've been reminded constantly of the extent to which they enrich our lives and I've seen the economic arguments that show that for every £1 of public money the arts receive they generate at least twice that for the national economy. These are convincing arguments. But, then again, I don't need  convincing.

So I've signed the petitions and I've pledged my support although I must confess I haven't added a 'twibbon' to my Twitter avatar as yet. Should the campaign against government funding cuts fail will this lack of commitment on my behalf amount to a contributing factor in that defeat? Of course not because pink ribbons alone  are not going to change coalition policy anymore than Mark Wallinger's striking  contribution is going to amount to anything more than a 25% hole in a reproduction of the nation's favourite painting. As propaganda tools go these symbols are fine but the question they raise is what do they symbolize? Are they clever art jokes for an in-house magazine or are they the  standards behind which a movement is mobilizing?

We must hope it's the latter because the stakes are high. British tourism relies heavily on arts and culture. In 2007 the total value to the economy was estimated at £86 billion and between 1997 - 2006 the creative economy grew faster than any other sector. Like it or not these figures owe a great deal to a government that, maybe for the sake of its own kudos, promoted and supported the notion of 'Cool Britannia'. Today we are faced with a Tory led coalition using the current economic climate as cover for a deeper ideological agenda that is hostile to state funding and determined to cut and slash its way out of  recession.

For arts and culture this approach will have a hugely detrimental effect. Already the British Museum has announced plans to scale back its opening hours and to review its policy of free admission. While announcements like these will inevitably grab the headlines they are only the tip of the iceberg.  According to Air Artists 16% of arts organizations believe they are facing closure in the next 12 months, with a further 29% anticipating the need to scale back activity. They go on to warn that jobs will be lost, institutions will close their doors and the UK will be in danger of losing its position at the forefront as a destination for culture and tourism.

Furthermore we are in danger of creating a culture where the arts become a privilege only the wealthy can enjoy. Is this the intention of the government? Perhaps not but I've yet to meet a Tory who doesn't at some level betray the characteristics of the proverbial Wildean cynic who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. If it furthers their agenda it is a price they are prepared to pay and appealing to their better nature is simply not going to succeed.

Clearly what is required in the face of this short sighted assault is a cohesive and coherent response that goes much further than ribbons and holes. And herein lies both the dilemma and a unique opportunity. The dilemma stems from the fact the arts is not alone in being asked to pay for a crisis not of its own making. The entire public sector is under threat which will mean cuts in frontline services that will affect everyone. If the wider public see their schools and hospitals suffering they will have little sympathy for the problems facing the arts.

It is essential therefore that the arts don't appear to be a special interest group and this is where the opportunity presents itself. Some supporters, I've noticed, have questioned the wisdom of having two campaigns running simultaneously while others are beginning to recognize the need to forge wider partnerships.  So why not an umbrella group to co-ordinate policy and seek alliances? I'm not suggesting that either campaign surrender its independence simply that, on key issues, they present a united front in pursuit of common goals and broader appeal.

This week the PCS union which represents thousands of workers in galleries and museums launched its own campaign to defend the nation's cultural assets. Here is a natural partner but I'd go further. Through this union links could be made with other public sector unions fighting cuts. By engaging with these groups there would be no danger of appearing to be a single issue campaign crying 'not in my back yard.' Such an alliance would provide a powerful voice and demonstrate that the arts is a vital component of society prepared to fight not only for its own interests but for those of others too.

Historically artists have never been afraid to stand shoulder to shoulder with others engaged in struggle. From the French Revolution to battles against racism, sexism and homophobia they have provided both moral and practical support. The current situation demands a similar response and, above all, it demands unity because in the face of Tory intransigence isolation is a recipe for defeat. Ask a group of workers who were once known as miners.