Save our arts

Posted on December 15, 2011

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After yet another amazing day spent wandering around a few of London’s best art institutions for free, soaking up some culture with a good friend, our conversation took a more sombre turn.

‘So how much longer do you reckon we’ll be able to do this?’

Silence.

This wasn’t a rhetorical question but we decided to avoid it anyway, because we both knew that easy, affordable access to art is probably on the way out. And that just doesn’t bear thinking about.

An empty pot

The ‘golden age’ of free museum entry in the UK is under threat. After a decade of phenomenal interest in our exhibitions and a thriving art scene, public spending cuts have cast a grim shadow over the future of culture in Britain. To some, it’s about time. Many are of the consensus that the arts have had it far too good, for far too long, and the funds need to be siphoned off to more ‘economically essential’ ventures. According to reigning Tory culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, free museum entry is only of benefit to ‘American tourists and continental mini-breakers,’ anyway.

I’m the first to agree that arts bodies, and charities in general, could do with sharpening up their act to use their funds more efficiently and cut admin costs – and the declining economy has provided the push needed to do just this. Many non profits have really stepped up to the plate and still deliver fantastic services in the face of spending cuts and dwindling donation levels. But suggesting that we natives aren’t interested in our own cultural national treasures? Too far Jeremy, too far.

When I have been unemployed in the past, my one saving grace – for both my sanity and faltering self esteem – has been being able to hop on the tube and go somewhere that I can surround myself with, and immerse myself in, art. I can’t count the number of times that filling out tedious job application forms on my laptop has driven me to distraction while sitting in Royal Festival Hall, and how taking a walk round a nearby exhibition has always somehow restored a sense of calm, direction, and motivation. I also know that I’m not the only one to have taken refuge in these public institutions when times get tough. I believe that the arts provide a pretty substantial backbone and support system for our country, and its people.

Looking beyond the pennies

Former culture secretary Chris Smith once said: “A nation without arts would be a nation that had stopped talking to itself, stopped dreaming, and had lost interest in the past and lacked curiosity about the future.”  Scrapping free museum entry and valuable funding for arts centred projects could easily send us down that path. Visitor numbers will plummet, many of whom would have probably left a donation anyway, and we’ll end up with even less funding for the arts as well as growing public apathy for it.

But why expend tax payers’ money on engaging the public with art? Where’s the financial gain?

Therein lies the problem. There are so many fantastic arts based outreach programmes around; the Koestler Trust using art to rehabilitate those incarcerated in the prison system, PhotoVoice using photography to give the socially marginalised a platform for self expression, to name just two. Neither of these ventures directly or immediately focus on financial gain. Yet they’re doing incredible things to regenerate people in need, who can then go on to contribute to society in a more valuable way. As is the plethora of arts focused mental health programmes which help those in psychological distress to get back on their feet, and back into useful employment. Politicians really miss the point when it comes to art, and this seems to be one of the innate problems with our leaders. Their constant need for tangible, financial measurement of results is leading to art and culture being dismissed as unimportant and is also what’s causing the third sector to become so tightly wrapped up in transparency expectations. It seems that if you can’t prove your worth in cold, hard cash…you’re out.

Art has the power to transport us and provides escapism from just that which politics seeks to underpin its worth with. Objectifiable, solid, tangible things – money, the economy, bottom lines, net gain etc. Which is why it’s so sad that at a time when we need creative outlets and sources of inspiration more than ever, they’re under the hammer.

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