We Need Societal Culture to Change, Not Advocacy for Arts Funding

posted in: Blog | 2

Arts Funding
This week the Arts Council England have launched their Advocacy Toolkit, which aims to give arts organisations a clear demonstration of the “value of public investment in the arts and culture”. The toolkit is designed to assist organisations in presenting the concise information and statistics (and pretty infographics) as a defence for public investment in the arts to MPs, stakeholders, audiences and anyone who will listen. Commissioned by Arts Council England with an independent report conducted by the Centre for Economics and Business Research it is a giant, and excuse the French, “fuck you” to those who are keen to cut funding to the arts. The report puts it simple: investment in the arts gives return to the local economy, £1 is returned up to £6.

The Advocacy Toolkit is not the first advocacy campaign to spring up in wake of increasing pressure from the current government to cut  budgets for the arts. After a domino effect of arts venues coming either close, or indeed altogether closing due to cuts to local authority budgets, the My Theatre Matters campaign was launched in March. Organised by Equity, The Stage and the Theatre Management Association, along with support from a string of high-profile industry peers, the campaign aims to tell councillors that local theatres matter for both individuals and the community. It is both a campaign to raise the profile of local theatres as it is to show the support and necessity of them.

Whilst both the Advocacy Toolkit and the My Theatre Matters campaign demonstrate a drive for further pressure to be applied to the government and local authorities for their understanding of arts funding, for me, these campaigns will fall on deaf ears. When the arts industry is being told by the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, that we must make the case for the arts to prove the economic value, it is not because it will make a difference, it is to assert that the coalition government will be seen as ‘listening’. Sadly making the case and creating advocacy tools and campaigns aren’t going to change the outcome of the next budgetary cuts; they are inevitable. It is not the government we must campaign against because the arts suffers from a much deeper and complex disagreement; the lack of support from the public. Whilst we have a thriving cultural industry that feeds into everyday lives, it is not integral. Culture is not valued because it is not seen as an integral part of living in this country.

Until we change the way in which the public views culture and the arts, we will never see a shift in policies and objectives from the government (or of course until we re-elect). This is not to undermine the work of both the Arts Council England and the My Theatre Matters campaign, both are essential tools to be used and seen, but their target is wrong. We have to make the public see the necessity in the arts, and show what will happen without it. Until we can prove that the arts are as valuable to that of healthcare (yes, that tired argument again), or welfare and education, then quite frankly the arts is screwed. Our government has to see how integral the arts is to the public in order gain any traction on further support.

It’s not tools for advocacy we need, it is a shift in cultural understanding and priority, something that takes years of gradual change. This is not something that we can solve ourselves. We can bang on the arts funding drum until we deafen all of society but it will do no good. We’re fighting against a deep rooted indifference and misunderstanding of the arts; years of misconception. And there’s the true rub: changing a societal view is not something that the arts industry can change, it has to happen within individuals. So whilst we’re given tools and campaigns, let us not mask the truth. I’m not trying to be defeatist, I’d gladly support and campaign for the arts, but it has to be done with a level of understanding. Societal views won’t change overnight, it comes from years of strategic development and campaigning.

2 Responses

  1. Eleanor

    Hi Jake,

    I agree that advocacy tools are not enough. This government is not (even) paying attention to the economic arguments. But we are ALL screwed if we go down the road of setting the value of arts against health against welfare against education – that’s the risk I see in this comment:
    “We have to make the public see the necessity in the arts, and show what will happen without it. Until we can prove that the arts are as valuable to that of healthcare (yes, that tired argument again), or welfare and education, then quite frankly the arts is screwed.”

    All those areas of society are being deliberately attacked. The ‘unavoidable’ budget cuts are just a useful cover for advancing the government’s other aims. To take a few examples: the privatisation of the NHS will not save on healthcare expenditure as admin costs are set to multiply; the bedroom tax will not save the state money as housing benefit costs will rise when people are forced out of council housing into the private market (but local councils can be blamed for over-spending on housing benefit).

    These measures take no account of long-term economic benefits. In the case of the measures that will force people in social housing to move (out of cities, or to the periphery) they take no account of the economic benefits of (say) a local network of friends, relatives and neighbours (and even cultural institutions), the importance of stability to children’s education, the sense of wellbeing that grows from having a secure home (with positive impact on physical and mental health) etc etc etc. You know.

    I believe that ‘the public’ does value the arts. And moreover, the arts articulate these values to which we might be able to give an economic value, but which go beyond the economic. It’s not a change of attitude but a political change that’s needed. That means encouraging young voters to register, questioning and informing political candidates, campaigning for politicians who understand the arts and have a long-term view of culture and values, voting, getting other people out to vote, voting in local elections and national elections and ….

    Like the ‘shift in cultural understanding’ you argue for, this takes years of campaigning, leg work, leaflets, talking to people and finding different ways to communicate ideas. It sometimes feels inimical to creative work – both as an individual, and in encountering the polite taboo on talking ‘politics’ in a cultural context. I feel apologetic for writing this!

    You say: “Our government has to see how integral the arts is to the public in order gain any traction on further support.” But the government has paid no attention to the public’s view of the importance of upholding the principles of the NHS. If we don’t change the people that get elected, we will continue to be told that the budget cuts are ‘inevitable’ and all we can do is compete for what’s left, setting arts vs health vs education.

  2. Alistair Smith

    Hi Jake,

    Agree with a lot of this. And wrote something very similar a little while ago.

    http://www.thestage.co.uk/features/2010/10/communication-breakdown/

    However, one thing I would stress about the My Theatre Matters! campaign (which I’m involved with) is that it trying to achieve precisely what you’re asking for. Yes, there is a call to action asking audiences to contact their local MPs, but actually (for me) the far more important part of the campaign is actually about educating audiences / the general public about the fact that their theatres (for the most part) are publicly funded (and the value that brings) . Most people have absolutely no idea of this fact.

    As part of the MTM campaign, there are actors giving curtain call speeches across the country at the moment and there’s print material distributed in theatres and theatre programmes letting audiences know this. Because, you’re quite right, we need to focus more on speaking to the general public than politicians and, actually, if we do it right, we can get the public to then speak on the sector’s behalf.

    Any help you can give in spreading the word would be much appreciated.