Culture Cuts

‘Cuts in Culture: The impact on creativity conference’. BAFTA, London, 11 May 2011.
Report from the recent conference held in London.

With such an overarching remit, it was perhaps inevitable this conference in May subtitled ‘the Impact on Creativity’ was going to be heavy on generalisations and ‘rise to the challenge’ rhetoric. The aim was possibly overly-optimistic in the first place. Described by Ehsan Masood, (editor of conference organisers’ Research Fortnight), as a day “to shine a light on the coalition government plans for arts, humanities teaching and research and what this means for the UK’s creative sectors”, there was perhaps too much to cram in, at the expense of critical engagement or real focus. As Professor of University of Exeter Arts and Culture Fellow Helen Taylor remarked from the floor, not having one representative on the panel from “north of Watford or west of Hammersmith” also didn’t help in terms of creating specificity.

There were however, attempts to bring attention to the odd project, such as Joycelyn Cunningham’s RSA Citizen Power: Peterborough, and some neat insights from Kerstein Mey into the relationships of art and science stood out -although work shown could be accused of creating simple visualisations at the expense of both art and creativity.

Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Ivan Lewis outlined some of Labour’s views on arts and humanities’ value to society and the importance of accessible higher education. This was long overdue as he has seemed to be curiously silent on such key issues. Lewis painted a grim but fairly accurate picture of “ideology trumping the national interest” in the arts, but didn’t really offer ways forward. Jude Kelly challenged the sector to take responsibility for the swift progress of the Coalition governments cuts, arguing the ‘divide and rule’ policy would have been far less successful if the sector had got out of its silo thinking in the good times of New Labour. Kelly pointed to a way forward by building strategic relationships with the science and technology sectors, thus making it impossible to divide arts and humanities from other areas of research.

For a conference focusing on art and on research there was little talk of art, artists or arts research. In fact, one could be left wondering if art or any of the critical thinking around art, so much of which emerges from the HE sector, had any impact on the day’s thinking; a sobering thought for all those writing up ‘impact statements’ towards the next Research Excellence Framework. Attempting to ignore Lord Stephenson’s assertion that perhaps too many people were going to university by using the somewhat self-reflexive argument that most of the political elite had not been in the “bottom decile universities” and his cheerful confession that he had no idea about the finances of his (previous) institution, at least it could be conceded that he recognised fine art is a “bedrock of creativity”.

But, just as creativity is not the same as art, cross-disciplinarity doesn’t mean you get artists to do things for you that you want to do already. If artists are really going to be involved in inter/ cross/trans-disciplinary contexts then they need to be involved as artists rather than visualisers or agents of conviviality.

At the end of the day, particularly after watching a short video from Sky Arts in which the highpoints (and low points) of Antony Gormley’s Fourth Plinth project One and the Other were set to Take That (“today this could be the greatest day of our lives”) perhaps one of the few solid conclusions to arise might be to worry that if corporate sponsorship of the arts is going to look like this, there could be trouble ahead. The warning lights, already on, went into over-drive as Gormley’s work was re-created into something else through Sky’s mediation. The resulting overly-sentimental, Britain’s-not-got-talent summary ended with some fairly nationalistic flag waving – a startling illustration that the medium is the message, and somehow in this one, the art got lost along the way.

In asking about the key issues the so-called ‘creative sector’ need to address in the light of austerity measures, and specifically cuts in HEand Arts Council England funding, answers at the conference really seemed to boil down to get out of your ‘silos’ and engage more with the private sector and philanthropy. However, Arts & Business’ own statistics pointed to a less glowing outlook. Year-on-year private investment figures in culture are down from 2007-08’s high of £686.6m to 2009-10’s £658m. Clearly, philanthropy really only works in the capital, and only for the big guns. Seventy-two per cent of private money goes to major arts organisations, and of that seventy per cent to twenty-five London-based organisations. As Ivan Lewis put it, if you live in the regions, “philanthropy is a pipe dream” for the arts.

Certainly, the combined drops in income for artists from the changes in HE arts and local authority cuts are going to make it difficult over the coming years. However, there are some very uncomfortable elements in embracing the philanthropy agenda. Realist pragmatism and generous philanthropists are critical, but in this context, and bearing in mind that public money is for arts investment not subsidy, it becomes more pressing for artists to fight for their intellectual independence and maintain space for criticality.

So as Colin Tweedy said, “We must march for our galleries and our museums and our theatres”, but we must also march for our artist-led studios, our UK-wide fine art departments, small grants and residencies, because it is only out of these grassroots that anything will ever be in our galleries and our museums and our theatres in the first place”.