First published in ArtsProfessional 235, 11 April 2010 (some links modified from original article)
As a sucker for the double entendre, I’ve always had a soft spot for the phrase, ‘lie of the land’, which turns rather neatly in the wake of the recent funding decisions unveiled by Arts Council England. It’s still early days, but for the arts sector the lie of the land betrays a future of hard battling for favourite art forms and organisations, amidst a general bun-fight for limited resources and (ignoring the potential irony) cries of sector-wide solidarity.
But there is the lie of the land, and lies in the cultural landscape…and both the arts sector and Government are guilty of fomenting the latter.
Let’s start with the arts sector, which if not consciously spreading a lie is too often guilty of peddling a position that few seem to be buying. I call it the Spinach Argument, something familiar to any parent trying to broaden their child’s diet: you (offspring/society) need (spinach or broccoli/the arts or culture) because it’s good for you. The latest Taking Part survey seems to indicate that a new approach is needed, since stagnant arts engagement won’t do much to change the general opinion that the arts are an easy cut. Ways forward might be found in the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships scheme, now being applied to the arts and which seeks to link practice, theory and perception. There is also potential here in a more robust dialogue around participatory arts
The ‘lie’ peddled by Government arises from those familiar bedfellows, ideology and ignorance. The Government’s various actions, including its dismal ACE budget, convey the message that the arts are a bauble, an adornment—and thus destined always to be first on the fiscal chopping block. But there’s a disconnect: key ministers bang on about innovation as essential to Future Britain, all the while having virtually nothing to say about the processes or context that enable a society to be innovative.
If creativity is the indisputable engine of innovation, then surely the arts provide essential creative fuel. In this context, it may be that the Spinach Argument needs to be made more convincingly to Government…even as the sector explores new ways of discovering how and why the arts fit into people’s lives more generally. As a push-back against the cuts, I know colleagues who will find these arguments too reductive; certainly, it may be more comforting to rail against the unfairness of the situation. And in many senses, it is unfair: for the price of a single Typhoon warplane most of the ACE cuts could have been avoided. But that’s not the world we live in.
For British arts and culture, more change is yet to come: anyone reading the lie of the land can see that much already. The question is whether the sector itself will be driver, bystander or victim.