Arts lobby is “over hysterical and over extreme”, says former chancellor of University of the Arts London

Natalie Woolman
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Dennis Stevenson, former chancellor of the University of the Arts London, has blamed an “over-hysterical” and “over-extreme” campaign against funding cuts for damaging the culture sector.

Stevenson, who recently stepped down as chancellor after ten years in the role and who also previously served as chairman of the Tate, said “sensible people” were now questioning the need for public subsidy for the arts.

Speaking at a Research Fortnight conference, Stevenson said: “We, the arts, have done ourselves quite a lot of damage because our lobbying against it [cuts] has been over-hysterical and over-extreme.

“For the first time in my life, I am finding reasonable, sensible people – like Treasury civil servants, journalists whose politics would be left of centre – beginning to question the need for public subsidy. I will just make that as an observation. Next time round, we have to be a darn sight better at our lobby.”

Stevenson also said the level of the cuts to the arts was “of itself not a disaster”, but stressed he believed in public subsidy for the arts.

He added: “The notion that there is a direct line between money and creativity is clearly completely spurious. Some of the greatest acts of creativity have come at the most straitened times in human history.”

Shadow culture secretary Ivan Lewis, who was also speaking at the conference, said discussions about the value of public subsidy for the arts had to progress in order to be effective.

In his speech, Lewis said: “In the good years, we didn’t win the argument about the importance of public investment in arts alongside education, health, policing etc. False choices [were posed] between intrinsic value and instrumentalism, and excellence and access. We should consider what we measure and how we measure it – economic and social, education and health, research and development – for many businesses. Only then can we have a serious debate about culture as an entitlement of citizenship, rather than an optional extra.”

Lewis called on the coalition to create a “vision” for the arts – asking ministers to answer questions including how important they think widening participation is and what their strategy is to support the next generation of British artistic talent.

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