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James Doeser: Culture White Paper – arts policy hasn’t evolved in 50 years

1965 arts minister Jennie Lee with Brian Batsford and Martin Bowley cutting a cake for the Questors’ Theatre’s birthday 1965 arts minister Jennie Lee with Brian Batsford and Martin Bowley cutting a cake for the Questors’ Theatre’s birthday
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It’s been two weeks since Ed Vaizey, minister for culture and the digital industries, proudly announced the publication of the long-awaited Culture White Paper. Last month’s hastily arranged launch at the Southbank Centre was presumably timed to coincide with the 51-year-and-one-month anniversary of A Policy for the Arts, the First Steps: the UK government’s first ever formal arts policy. Vaizey’s Culture White Paper has taken a little time to percolate through the cultural sector. Now feels like a good time to reflect on what it really means. To save you a little trouble, below is the key section that sets out the government’s objectives.

In summary, it calls for support for young creatives, rebalancing funding in favour of the regions while protecting London’s gems, expanding and diversifying audiences while supporting excellence, a joined-up approach to making it all happen. Sounds good, right? The thing is, this extract is from the 1965 policy, not the one launched last month. However, it also serves as a decent summary of the 2016 Culture White Paper. The similarities between the two are uncanny, and their differences all too depressing.

Today’s culture minister Ed Vaizey. Photo: Tom Donald
Today’s culture minister Ed Vaizey. Photo: Tom Donald

Harold Wilson appointed Jennie Lee to be the UK’s first ever arts minister in 1964, a role he created for her after the death of her husband Aneurin Bevan. Her white paper came out a year later. The cultural and political landscape in 1965 was so different from today it’s barely possible to conceive.

The 1960s are a foreign country to us in 2016. Local government was still (in places) home to powerful and proud local leaders who were culturally distinct and had the means to be relatively well-resourced. There was no internet, only three television channels, and little overseas travel. Cash, not credit cards, was exchanged for paper tickets bought from an actual person in a physical box office. Smoking was ubiquitous. The Lord Chamberlain was up to his eyeballs in smut. The last vestiges of Victorian culture were just giving way to the modern world. Gilbert and Sullivan held on to the stage as Andrew Lloyd Webber waited in the wings. It was a world that went ‘clunk’, not ‘ping’.

The new arts minister was a Labour hero, but an outsider in the London arts world. Patricia Hollis’ excellent biography of Lee shows how, by forming alliances with people such as Arnold Goodman (the Arts Council’s affable but uber-establishment chairman), she became adept at achieving her mission: to open up the arts to normal people. However, she was living through a time of unprecedented cultural change, and there was nothing any minister could do to stop it.

By 1965, a younger generation could simultaneously like Beethoven and the Beatles. It was the year that Kenneth Tynan said “fuck” on national television. Not everyone liked what they heard. The grumpy old men in Whitehall and the Arts Council still saw cultural policy as a way to steer impressionable minds from degenerate and ephemeral pop culture towards an improving classical cannon.

I’ve spent time in the Arts Council archive going through council minutes, government reports, correspondence and all sorts of ephemera. It gives you a clear sense of what a different world it was back then. One note about restricting the smoking of pipes and cigars to the final hour of meetings really sticks in my mind. Something else is discernable in the archive, and it’s much more depressing than the whiff of stale tobacco.

If you can get hold of a copy, I’d strongly recommend reading the 1965 act. Its striking prose is beautiful in its modesty and clarity. It’s hard to pin down exactly when, but sometime in the 1990s, cultural policy documents stopped being an honest account of government interventions and instead became a cynical parade of supposed achievements. Which brings us to the 2016 Culture White Paper.


Government objectives for the arts

• Today’s artists need more financial help, particularly in the early years before they have become established. Their ability to develop and sustain a high level of artistic achievement lies at the centre of any national policy for the arts.

• The government hope to see a great increase in local and regional activity, while maintaining the development of the national institutions. They are convinced that the interests of the whole country will be served in this way.

• The government appreciate the need to sustain and strengthen all that is best in the arts, and the best must be made more widely available.

• There is need for more systematic planning and a better coordination of resources.

The ambitions and proclamations in the 2016 white paper are eminently predictable. They are pretty much the same as those from 1965, with added buzzwords and diminished sincerity. Naturally, it is scattered with a long list of technocratic measures: a sector review here, a tax break there. Some may become consequential, the rest probably less so. So far, so wonkish.

The world of the Arts Council is perhaps the least exciting part of the white paper. ACE is supposed to operate at arm’s length from the government. What interests me is other areas of policy: especially local government and education. Vaizey has been the culture minister for nearly six years. The position is traditionally seen as one of the most junior in Whitehall. One can only imagine the number of promotions he has turned down in that time. His loyalty to the arts is not in dispute. But I am concerned about his friends.

There are plenty of claims in the white paper about the positive benefits of engaging in the arts: for health, well-being, education etc. Problematically, the research shows it’s participatory arts that really deliver these outcomes: the kind traditionally supported by local authorities, the very agencies this government seems determined to decimate. They talk about culture’s place in a ‘northern powerhouse’ while starving the institutions and industries that underpin the communities that live there.

Vaizey’s colleague Nicky Morgan, the secretary of state for education (who warned young people that choosing to study arts subjects could “hold them back for the rest of their lives”), exhibits an egregious political pirouette (on p19 of the white paper, if you care to look it up). Her new-found enthusiasm for arts education needs to be matched with practical action.

After the 1965 white paper, the woeful state of the cultural infrastructure got a large injection of cash. Lee tripled the Arts Council’s grant. A good chunk of it was spent in the regions. Most of the famous theatres and concert halls you visit today were either built or renovated during Lee’s time as minister.

The fact that the objectives of the 2016 white paper replicate those of its 1965 predecessor shows how successive governments have been incapable of moulding the cultural sector into a diverse and equitable place. Meanwhile, there have been revolutions in the cultural sector that demand government attention: cultural abundance thanks to digital technology and the web; the fact that everybody can be a creator (thanks to affordable technology); the advent of mechanised and automated workplaces and our near-enslavement to algorithms; globalisation, trade and migration. Perhaps a radically fresh approach is required? I’d welcome a revolution, not mere evolution.

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