Good is no longer good enough. Arts Council England is changing its priorities ahead of its current strategic review. “Relevance is the new litmus test,” announced deputy chief executive Simon Mellor, trailing ACE’s new 10-year plan. Or, as one wag quipped shortly afterwards: “Relevance is the new excellence.”
Relevance, here, doesn’t mean ‘on point’. It doesn’t mean timely or topical, pressing or potent. We’re not talking relevance in the abstract – to contemporary thought, urgent issues or cutting-edge technology – but rather in concrete terms; relevance to people’s lives, cares and concerns. “It will no longer be enough to produce high-quality work,” Mellor insisted. “You will need to be able to demonstrate that you are also facing all of your stakeholders and communities in ways that they value.”
He let slip a telling statistic: fewer than half of us engage with subsidised libraries, museums or arts organisations more than twice a year. “If that continues to be the case in 2030, how easy do you think it will be to make the case for public funding of the arts?” In other words: What good is great art if nobody gets to it?
The thinking’s not wrong – the nationwide inequality in arts provision uncovered by the Warwick Commission needs addressing – but the thinking is worrying. We would be crazy to give up on excellence.
Since it re-entered the lexicon with the McMaster report of 2008, excellence has become a contested term, synonymous with cultural elitism. Whose excellence, we ask, and who does it shut out? Good questions both, but both there in McMaster. Its introduction talked of “reclaim[ing] the word ‘excellence’ from its historic, elitist undertones and to recognise that the very best art and culture is for everyone”. Spot the slide since: the very best art for all, great art for all, and now, simply, some art for all.
The McMaster report wasn’t flawed, it was failed. Its most radical proposals – that arts institutions throw their doors open for free a week every year, for instance – never came close to coming to pass. It was released eight months before Lehman Brothers collapsed, two years before austerity and arts funding cuts kicked in. Accessibility fell by the wayside and excellence without access is, yes, elitist.
ACE’s new strategy looks like a populist arts policy – both for better and for worse. Back the art that brings people in. McMaster’s mantra – ‘trust the artist’ – has been supplanted. ‘Trust the audience’ now holds sway. It begs the question: Who’s out in front – the artist’s instincts or the audience’s taste?
The risk is that such policies become rooted in the present tense: relevant ends up meaning relevant now. Were I high up at ACE HQ, I’d put another aspirational buzzword out front: potential. Art ought to look to the future. It should innovate, inspire and educate. Subsidy should bring new ideas and emerging artists through. All of that, currently, is under threat: arts education flounders, young artists are stuck. So forget relevance for now. Art should be ahead of the curve.
Matt Trueman is a theatre critic, journalist and blogger. Read more of his columns at thestage.co.uk/author/matt-trueman