If, as many people expect, the Labour Party forms a government after the next election, what will be their policy for the arts? Starmer has already decided the person to deliver it is Thangam Debbonaire. Before the Labour Party conference, he appointed Debbonaire, a classically trained musician, as Shadow Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport.
She told The Arts Newspaper that she would be “a national champion of the arts”. Her plan to reinvigorate the infrastructure that supports the arts, called Space to Create, “has no cost attached to it. It’s about redirecting our focus”.
It seems unlikely that any plan for reviving the UK’s cultural infrastructure could have no cost attached to it. So, while she has many issues to address, from visa waivers for performers to questions about how copyright will deal with artificial intelligence, the bigger question is: what is Labour’s overall plan for the future of funding the arts in the UK?
The arts was one of the sectors worst hit by the funding cuts associated with the austerity strategy of successive Conservative governments in the last decade. In 2017, Treasury funding of Arts Council England (the main conduit for public money to the arts), alongside lottery funding and local government grants to the arts, was 70% of its level in 2010, according to a report by the UK’s Campaign for the Arts.
Some of the many cases of radically reduced funding, complete suspension of support, and refusal of support, have been justified by ministers as redirecting financial support away from London and towards the regions – correcting a historic imbalance.
But while expanding the funding for regional arts activity was always welcome, the successive reductions in overall funding for the arts have led to harsh criticism from arts commentators. Katie Goh concluded in gal-dem magazine that “the Tory government has been on a hell-bent mission to defund, devalue and dismantle the UK’s arts and culture sector since the party came to power in 2010”. So, the question is: what might change under a Labour government?
Arts and the creative industries
As it did the last time it was in power, it seems clear that the Labour Party will put the creative industries at the heart of their arts policy. Certainly, there is also a focus on inclusivity and the provision of regional institutions for the development of creativity.
But in her 2023 conference speech, Debbonaire’s emphasis was on how they will “fire up the engine of Britain’s creative economy”, because the creative industries are “at the heart of [Labour’s] plan for economic growth”. While this might well produce supportive policies for the arts, it also rests on an instrumentalist view of culture that can undermine the very thing it seeks to support.
A focus on the creative industries can make it harder to secure funding for artforms that have no (immediate) commercial possibility, even if this represents the pool from which commercial art activities and practitioners are drawn or developed.
To be fair to the first two New Labour administrations, while there were some complaints around the edges, funding for the non-commercial arts (from opera to museums) saw a clear uplift after 1997, in direct contrast to the previous governments. Former Minister for Culture and Tourism Margaret Hodge maintained in 2010 that investment in the arts had risen 83% in real terms under New Labour.
However, the representation of the arts as ‘creative industries’ is indicative of a particular mindset about how the arts can benefit society. The current funding model measures success on the basis of profitability and the contribution the arts can (and do) make to the economy. This approach values skills acquisition in the labour market, contribution to export performance and, more recently, how the arts can aid ‘levelling up’. It offers a narrow view of the value of the arts, whereby they are only worth supporting if they deliver results that serve the government’s wider socio-economic priorities.
What this means is that arts practitioners unable to demonstrate some economic value will find that support can and will be constrained or not available. Conversely, artists and other practitioners are ‘encouraged’ to find private sector support and market-oriented forms of outputs to help them complement (and eventually replace) state funding. In the end the market is seen as the final arbiter of quality and value in the arts.
The arts as a vital alternative space
This reliance on markets to establish what is and is not a valuable creative activity is a rather thin view of what the arts contribute to society. Rather than an exclusive focus on the economic contribution of the arts, might it be better to see promotion of and support for the arts as a vital part of democracy?
One way of seeing this is to regard the arts as occupying a third (but connected) space: not the market, and not the state, but a public space of imaginative possibility. Here the arts may interact with markets (through ticket sales, admissions fees, publications) and the state (by using institutions and receiving support), but they represent a space for socio-cultural experience unencumbered by the pressures and constraints of the other two realms.
This is therefore a space that is democratic in a different way from either the market or the state. It is not disconnected from the others – it overlaps. But it represents a space where the values developed, enjoyed and celebrated can be very different. This is valuable for society.
While there are many ways to think about the arts, Lambert Zuidervaart has developed an interesting case for justifying the support of the arts by the state. When setting out his extended defence of funding for the arts in The Other Journal, he argues that they “help people carry out explorations and presentations and interpretations in an imaginative fashion, to help them disclose in fresh and insightful ways the felt quality and lived experience of concerns that merit public attention”. This public attention to concerns under-recognised by state and market is so valuable but is missed when arts policy is focused for the most part on the creative industries.
Zuidervaart concludes that his case in support of “direct state subsidies” of the arts is based on cultural, political and economic components:
“Culturally, it claims that the arts are institutional settings for imaginative disclosure that is societally important. Politically, it claims that, to promote public justice, democratically elected governments need to protect and support art’s creative articulation of issues and interests in the public sphere. And economically, it claims that non-profit arts organizations in the civic sector provide important social-economic alternatives that are both needed and threatened by the capitalist market and the administrative state.”
In the end, of course, this is not an either/or proposition. Even the most instrumental view encompasses some notion of the intrinsic value of the arts; and even those who promote social engagement most thoroughly also recognise the economic benefits supporting the arts can bring to localities. The question is, how does this balance off when funding is being decided in a budget-constrained policy environment?
We will need to see what Debbonaire’s Space to Create entails, but if it focuses on how to improve the reach and effectiveness of the creative industries then we may not see the same wide-ranging revival of funding for the arts many associate with Tony Blair’s government. This would then likely see the continuing hollowing out of the arts sector in the UK.
If Zuidervaart is right about the social value of the arts, then space for the democratic imagination will remain constrained and diminished.
We need your help!
The press in our country is dominated by billionaire-owned media, many offshore and avoiding paying tax. We are a citizen journalism publication but still have significant costs.
If you believe in what we do, please consider subscribing to the Bylines Gazette from as little as £2 a month 🙏