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It’s time to invest in, then export our cultural wealth

Edinburgh Fringe Festival hit Nirbhaya by Yael Farber. Photo: William Burdett Coutts
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At the end of a five-day trip to China that saw Chancellor George Osborne announce a string of trade deals he opined that Britain should be more like China or risk becoming a “second-rate power”.

His argument that we have lost our “can do” attitude may well apply to industry and exports where the Chinese have invested heavily in their bid for superpower status. I would also argue that fast emerging, key nations such as China (and indeed India and Brazil) are also placing greater policy emphasis on and injecting greater resources into culture – catalysts for nation-building and identity; and significant contributors to growth, skills and prosperity.

This represents a clear opportunity for the UK, for it is overseas, in so many countries, where UK strength in creativity – from Downton Abbey to Shakespeare to design and innovative theatre –  is so widely recognised by governments, practitioners and institutions.

When will we as a nation fully understand our own strength in this sector here in the broadest of UK terms – and deploy its full benefits, understand its full potential and share it genuinely with others in a spirit of mutual exploration and innovation? The opportunity is there, the arts institutions and artists are ready, audiences around the world want it, the creative industries are primed to deliver growth and jobs. For, yes, there’s a paradox here; as public funding sources dry up, artists and companies seek more work overseas. Yes, it’s good to internationalise – that’s what we’re about, but it has to be built on a system which recognises the value back to the UK as significant contributors to the projection of the UK as a civilised, creative and forward-thinking society.

It is utopian, not to say naive, to believe that everyone can remove the need for some state subsidy by simply following the example, say, of the enterprising Bury Art Museum, whose exhibition of works by Lowry, Turner and Freud (from collections all over the north of England) is on a lucrative six-city tour of China – China, not by any means the “easy-to-work-in” cash machine that it’s often touted as. Not everyone in the arts has such valuable assets for one thing, and you can’t sustain a company or a gallery – let alone serve your community, by merely peddling your wares year round from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe.

Success has to be built on strong foundations at home and a recent study by the Scottish Government estimated that Festivals in Scotland generated tourism revenue worth £261 million in 2010. That is more for Scotland than Golf and only slightly less than Whisky. I look forward to the time when the UK’s arts and creative sectors are fully recognised here as one of the pre-eminent sectors for growth and prosperity, and supported according to their genuine and proven worth and for their entrepreneurial ability to work in sophisticated mixed model economies.

While the charms of Edinburgh are a tourist draw in their own right, it is the enduring strength of our British cultural offer that brings them in such numbers during August. It is one of our biggest annual opportunities to show the great richness of our creative sector. Yet support for emerging artists is dwindling.

Our best ‘R&D’ can only be done by larger and larger organisations. Stewart Lee in The Observer recently spoke of how only the National Theatre could have supported the development of Jerry Springer the Opera. While this is true, and the National should rightly be celebrated in its 50th year for being such a wonderful bastion of support, we must remember that the work originated from Battersea Arts Centre, with its far smaller resources. While the National can afford to invest some of its significant income into new work, smaller and smaller public investment means greater and greater pressure is put on smaller organisations to continue developing the future of the arts. Pragmatism means we all realise that the level of investment in arts may well never return to levels we have seen over the last decade, but we must realise that the incredible growth of our arts and culture sector and the prosperity it delivers will never again be seen either.

National Theatre Wales' The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning. Photo: Richard Campbell
National Theatre Wales’ The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning. Photo: Richard Campbell

I am cheered by how strongly the arts are engaging with the major issues of the day and I saw examples all around me in Edinburgh this summer. The moving one-woman show HeLa, in the Made in Scotland showcase (about bioethics, race and human rights); The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning, from the innovative National Theatre Wales; Nirhbaya by Yael Farber (on the recent shocking events in India).

In several of the above plays history was written, as the Edinburgh runs continued with authors rewriting the endings during the Festival itself. All of these – and more – give the lie to Mark Ravenhill’s recent assertion that the arts had somehow become “soft” on subsidy over a decade, avoiding the critical issues of the day. I don’t see the causal link here and, in my experience, artists as well as the work itself have rarely been as politically and culturally aware as they are at this present time. From my perspective, it’s this that gives theatre and dance much of their energy in the UK and by internationalising this work the hope must surely be that asides from supplying the opportunity for growth in the sector at home, the work can also make a significant contribution to making the world a culturally richer and more tolerant place.

Graham Sheffield is director of arts at the British Council

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