Arts sector needs democracy boost, insists culture minister

David Lammy has urged the cultural sector to become more like the BBC and the NHS in the way it engages with the general public, if it is to achieve an improved funding settlement in future budgets.

According to the culture minister, the industry must urgently become more “democratic” if it is to move away from the “crisis of legitimacy” it is currently facing and receive the funding levels it deserves.

He explained: “The BBC and the NHS are both more than the sum of their individual components. They are the embodiment of an enduring set of democratic values. We value them not just for what they do, but also what they stand for, for how they engage us and for how they respond to us.

“[Democracy] is the product of people being exposed to the arguments and their informed views taken into account. Yet far too often those bodies that represent the [cultural] sector have failed to take this to heart. And that is why we have so often failed to achieve the settlement we deserve.”

Speaking at the launch of a new pamphlet by Blairite think tank Demos, Lammy said the document, Cultural Value and the Crisis of Legitimacy, put forward proposals that would be “at the heart of the changes [he wanted] to bring about as minister for culture.”

The pamphlet’s author John Holden said that the sector had become too focused on fulfilling the objectives of funding bodies at the expense of satisfying audiences and it was crucial that it moved away from a mentality of ticking boxes. Speaking to The Stage, he commented: “I don’t see this being achieved by old-fashioned advocacy… it needs a different kind of dialogue.”

Lammy said that while the changes would not mean the end of the arm’s-length principle or the independence of the cultural sector, there would be “hard decisions about the relationships [of strategic bodies such as Arts Council England] with the wider sector, about the directions and levels of funding and how our strategic bodies themselves should look.”

The comments are the latest of a series made by Lammy, in which he has laid out his vision for the future of the UK cultural sector. Earlier this year, speaking to the Association of British Orchestras, he called for a new system that would see leading companies being made to “stand on their own.” Junior ministers are often used by government to voice its more radical policies and Lammy is seen in political circles as young, ambitious and keen to stamp his mark on the sector.

Professor Sara Selwood, head of cultural policy and management at City University, broadly welcomed Lammy’s proposals but warned that the minister had not made clear how the results of the changes would be measured.

She added: “One of the drawbacks is that he hasn’t touched on accountability… [and] it’s unclear what kind of art he was thinking about. I certainly don’t know where this is going in terms of whether there will be more community work or more high art.

“It seems to be going in the right direction but I find it hard to cut through the rhetoric. How will it happen? And what does it mean in terms of where the arts council will be?”

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The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London. Photo: Noel Foster