During General Election campaigns, arts and culture rarely feature centre stage. Next to cross-electorate issues like the (sorely underfunded) NHS and education, arts and culture is perhaps seen as a parochial issue, unlikely to seduce swing voters. However, our arts institutions’ futures are bound up with the decisions of the electorate. Like the Environment, policy decisions have a profound effect on the arts, but too often these fail to grab headlines or galvanise mass debate.
The effect on the arts of Brexit is well attested to. Not only are avenues of funding likely to be withdrawn, the UK will struggle to attract the visiting artists and cultural workers on which the industry relies (Martin Roth of the V&A being the first major casualty last year). More fundamentally, the arts are an international pursuit, disregarding national boundaries in favour of global biennials, worldwide tours and loans of artworks. Brexit Britain is anathema to the contemporary arts.
That this rarely crops up in mainstream coverage of the election (this BBC info-page on election issues fails to even mention culture) disguises the profound impact that the impending result will have on the arts. During the last seven years of Tory rule, arts funding has been brutally cut (by £48.2m), national gallery services have had to fight against privatisation, and arts institutions are being incentivised to move towards private investors. Coupled with Brexit, and a Trump administration likely to cut all arts funding, this makes it vital for those with an interest in art to look seriously at what the two main parties are offering.
In the (entirely uncosted) Tory manifesto, lip-service is paid to their ‘strong support for the arts’ and they promise a ‘new cultural development fund’ that lacks either detail or budget (page 25). This rings false from a party that have, in 2015, frozen funding to most National Portfolio Organisations. A ‘Great Exhibition of the North’ is planned for 2018, but this is not fleshed out and appears to be little more than a idea thrown in to bolster a brief paragraph that constitutes the entire Tory plans for the arts (page 25). A search for the term ‘music’ yields no results, nor does ‘venue’ (except in ‘revenue’…).
To a sector bracing for an uncertain Brexit, these vague promises and brevity of commitment are disquieting and reflect a general disregard for the arts. Alongside cuts, freezes and encroaching privatisation, Michael Gove’s Tory curriculum of 2014 featured less than a side of a4 on art education for primary school children and he called Helen Marten’s Turner Prize winning work ‘#ModdishCrap’. ‘Strong support for the arts’, indeed (or, in the words of Jeremy Deller, ‘Strong and Stable My Arse’).
In contrast, and in main opposition in this General Election, Labour have taken a very different approach to arts and culture. So far, Labour-leader Jeremy Corbyn has been on stage with the Libertines, graced the cover of NME and Kerrang, and lists Clean Bandit and Maxine Peake as support acts. Embracing UK Grime, Corbyn’s sit-down with JME for i-D has been watched over a quarter of a million times, spawning #Grime4Corbyn.
This strikes a different tone to the Tories’ approach to the UK arts scene. However, without policies to back it up, even this would be little more than lip service. Corbyn has pledged his support for independent music venues, recognising that chain coffee-shops can squeeze out small café-cum-venues. Their manifesto includes a windfall of £1bn to upgrade cultural infrastructure, which will be administered by the Arts Council. Finally, Labour will ‘introduce an arts pupil premium to every primary school in England – a £160 million annual per year boost for schools to invest in projects that will support cultural activities for schools over the longer term’ (page 95-97).
The issue of arts funding is one of government priorities. We have seen the effect of Tory disregard for the arts playing out across our galleries and cultural landscape. The different tone apparent in Corbyn’s campaign is not only a breath of fresh air, but also indicative of an administration that would champion and protect the arts. While the electoral system is riddled with issues, this election does seem to offer a genuine choice for culture enthusiasts. Fight for the arts. Vote wisely.
This article only covers the two main parties. For more on other parties see: https://www.local.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/9.38%20LGA%20MANIFESTO_CULTURE_v03.pdf
And Cornelia Parker’s tenure as ‘Official Artist’ of the General Election draws to a close: https://www.instagram.com/electionartist2017/?hl=en