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When governments stop funding them, art institutions end up being used as PR tools

When governments stop funding them, art institutions end up being used as PR tools

This article was originally published on Labour List here on 13 November 2014

“Art and love are the same thing: It’s the process of seeing yourself in things that are not you,” so says the Esquire writer Chuck Klosterman. Art connects us on a human level; a level that transcends time, culture, borders. But I don’t agree with Klosterman that we see ourselves in art; I think we see humanity in art.

Apologies for getting sentimental, but when was the last time you heard policy makers talk about things like humanity, emotion and relationships? Only this week we heard Education Secretary Nicky Morgan advise against studying arts subjects because doing so “limits career choices.” In a market-driven society, particularly during times of austerity, it seems almost forbidden to talk about our engagement with social institutions in anything but the most utilitarian terms. It can almost feel like we’re not really people.

Apparently the purpose of this government’s fiscal policies is to avert economic catastrophe and get us into work. Your author remains unconvinced, but even if those policies miraculously work, what are we supposed to do once the economy is stable and we’ve all got jobs? We need to be able to engage with the world in some way, to form relationships with one another, and create communities. Art is essential for human connection and self-expression. It’s not a luxury for those who can afford it. We need to be bold enough to make the arguments for things that don’t simply have straightforward functional value.

Today Class releases a paper by arts expert Dr Abigail Gilmore, “Raising our quality of life: The importance of investment in arts and culture.” Unsurprisingly she finds that the coalition has reduced state subsidy to the arts in favour of private giving and sponsorship. That much is evident from visiting the galleries of London, which are variously sponsored by private companies wishing to rehabilitate their public image. The Tate is frequently visited by Liberate Tate, the brilliant and creative campaign group attempting to pressurise the Tate into ending its relationship with BP – a relationship that might never have formed had the Tate received adequate government funding in the first place.  This is what happens when governments stop seeing arts funding as worthwhile: they’re used as a PR tool for oil companies.

According to Gilmore’s paper, the coalition government is also continuing New Labour’s practice of expecting quantifiable “returns on investment” in the arts. New Labour saw art as a tool to achieve wider policy aims, like regeneration and economic development. Art became something that was assessed both locally and nationally in terms of its value for money, rather than something which could bring local communities together and engage citizens. The result, unsurprisingly, has been a massive disparity in funding with some areas (like my home North Wales) receiving very little funding per head, and others – in particular, big cities – doing very well.

I still remember going to our local theatre as a child (now closed down). It had an otherworldly quality, and it made me feel like our small town was a community, rather than just a collection of people living in close proximity. It gave me civic pride. Policy makers shouldn’t shy away from talking about the personal and the emotional when it comes to the arts, and to that end policy should be made with local communities in mind. People need to feel as though the arts are part of the landscape of their lives; that they can participate and shape their local culture, and use the arts as a way of improving the quality of their lives.

Politicians like to talk in macho business-like terms about the role of government, but there needs to be some space to talk about how fulfilled we are as human beings, without worrying about sounding weak and sensitive. People elect governments to ensure their lives are enriched and secure. A politics that can’t do that isn’t worth much at all.

You can read and download a copy of Abigail Gilmore’s paper “Raising our quality of life: The importance of investment in arts and culture” here.