Wednesday, 05 October 2016 14:36

Placing the art of the people at the heart of our public life

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Placing the art of the people at the heart of our public life

Andrew Warburton continues his series on arts policy by interviewing Dr. Ben Walmsley, professor of audience engagement at Leeds University.

Socialist policies for arts and culture are not created in an ideological vacuum. Rather than thinking we must devise policies that reflect our ideology perfectly and then impose those policies on the world, the seeds of a socialist approach to art can be found in the here and now. If we are to identify those seeds and elucidate ways to draw them out, we require a grasp of the present state of things, and a clear understanding of the way the arts should be developed for the collective good and for the working class.

 

With this in mind, I interviewed Dr. Ben Walmsley about the state of arts and cultural policy today.

The class politics of arts and cultural funding is clear to anyone who examines the figures in detail: the working class and the North of England have been hit hardest by the Conservatives’ £103 million cuts to annual grant-in-aid funding since 2010. These cuts have been offset, to some extent, by increased funding from the National Lottery, but, as Dr. Walmsley points out, this approach has ‘been accused of acting as a regressive form of taxation, whereby working class northerners subsidise the cultural hobbies of middle-class southerners’.

Using Lottery funds to ‘compensate for cuts in core funding’ is, Dr. Walmsley claims, ‘highly controversial because it appears to contravene the so-called “additionality principle”, which holds that government funding decisions shouldn’t be influenced by lottery contributions’.

Although the Northern working class has, in this sense, lost opportunities through cuts to funding and yet continues to subsidise leisure activities it often doesn’t partake in, a variety of programmes and policies have been put in place to address this problem. Foremost among them, of course, is the resources of the comprehensive system of education, which, sadly, the Labour Party and teaching unions are now having to defend in the face of Conservative plans to reintroduce a two-tier schooling system.

Dr. Walmsley emphasises the importance of offering arts and cultural opportunities to young people in schools, arguing it represents one of the best ways to diversify the arts and increase working class engagement.

‘Our state education system is obviously the best way to engage the next generation of artists and audiences… [and] the best way to attract a more diverse audience to the arts’, he claims. ‘We know that a positive formative arts experience has a significant impact on a child’s propensity to engage with the arts later in life…’

The professor’s comments echo Jeremy Corbyn’s widely reported assertion, ‘Every child deserves the chance to learn a musical instrument, act on a stage and develop their creative imagination…’; and there are, at least, some tangible projects currently attempting to make this a reality. A socialist Labour government ought, of course, to support and expand these programmes.

They include: Arts Council England’s Creative Places and People project, which pays local community groups and arts organisations to bring their activities into areas least engaged by the arts; Imaginate’s Theatre in Schools Scotland programme, which aims to give theatre access to every school child in Scotland (something Dr. Walmsley would like to see ‘replicated in England and Wales’); and the last Labour government’s Creative Partnerships programme, a £38.1 million per year fund that brought professional musicians, actors and artists into over 2,500 schools in England to improve the state of arts teaching.

Sadly, the Conservatives’ cuts announced in 2010 effectively ended the latter programme, causing the head of the charity that operated it to claim: ‘The fantastic progress made in the last few years is now seriously under threat, and those young people who are most likely to miss out on these opportunities are the most vulnerable’.

What is desperately needed is greater funding to local councils and further devolution of spending to local regions to address the often class-based divide between London and other parts of the United Kingdom. Corbyn has, of course, lent his support to both ending austerity and making spending decisions local, promising to devolve ‘cultural budgets to a regional level [and to improve] integration of cultural planning with local decision-making’. This should give predominantly working class regions with Labour councils greater say over their engagement with art.

Dr. Walmsley argues it is ‘heartening’ to see Corbyn ‘taking the arts seriously and pledging to reverse the recent funding cuts [and focusing] on devolving funding…’ He also points out that ‘under Corbyn, local governments would receive a much better deal, which is also a significant factor in the current decimation of arts funding’.

Besides funding issues, Dr. Walmlsey highlights a few other steps the government could take to make the arts available for the many rather than the few, including placing ‘more onus on arts venues to nurture emerging artists, companies and audiences…’ with proper ‘follow-through’ and greater ‘consequences for those that don’t’; and making it a statutory obligation for local councils to fund the arts. Otherwise, he warned, ‘there is a very real chance that even more councils will cut their arts funding altogether, which would be disastrous for public access’.

Of course, these are just some of the ways the government, local councils and publicly funded programmes and projects can work hand in hand with working class artists and regions to develop the arts for everyone. And certainly, they represent a kind of alternative to the private market, in which art is often a commodity and an investment. Although working class artists do not necessarily need the permission or even the support of national or local government to create, we in the labour movement can only transform our society by working inside and outside government, with artists, members of parliament and local councillors, in an attempt to place the art of the people at the heart of our public life.
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Andrew Warburton

Andrew Warburton is a writer and editor in Boston, Massachusetts. He is a member of Labour International (the international section of the British Labour Party) and Momentum.