Joan Bakewell on the increasing importance of the National Campaign for the Arts
One of this country’s finest actors and a superlative reader of poetry – Sam West – will be coming to the Lords tonight, to tell Labour Peers about his role as Chair of the National Campaign for the Arts (NCA). I was the Chair for some 10 years, so I know something about the NCA. It was created decades ago to challenge Margaret Thatcher’s brutality towards all arts institutions – which she regarded, with some justification, as “not her supporters”; and, with no justification at all, as a lot of windy complainers.
The NCA was initially the creation of the entertainment unions: Equity, the Musicians Union and some of the technical backroom unions. It was their financial backing that was crucial in getting the whole enterprise off the ground. And the unions continued to have an important voice on the board of the NCA as it battled cuts throughout the 1980s.
The remit of the NCA is to be a lobby for the interests of all the arts, and on becoming Chair I extended that to include literature and publishing. With the ongoing decimation of so much of our library services, this is particularly important at this time. But the NCA has also grown to be effective as a backgrounder for all those involved in decision-making about the arts, for example in the matter of visas for visiting artists.
This has been and remains a very fraught subject.
Distinguished musicians and actors from foreign countries wonder why they are put through such a humiliating process to come into Britain to star at some of our most prestigious venues. There have been cases of famous artists simply refusing to submit to such insulting scrutiny and cancelling their visits. The NCA made sustained representations to the Home Office and eventually contributed to a working party, set up to deal with the matter. Such functions as this go on in private and rarely make headlines but are invaluable for the smooth running of this country’s rich and varied cultural life.
The NCA also pioneered the idea of an annual audit of the cultural industries, ie what was being invested, earned, spent and recovered in wealth for the economy. Against my own personal instincts I learned to speak in the vocabulary of management-speak to convince successive governments of the arts’ importance. We became a source of information whenever parliamentarians were debating the arts and were relied on for accurate and appropriate information across a wide range of topics. Throughout recent years, we have had the unqualified support of the Arts Council as we run in parallel with them, seeking to influence Ministers.
So who are the NCA?
It’s a membership organisation, involving some 400 of the country’s arts institutions: from the Royal Opera House, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre and many orchestras right down to the most modest touring theatre companies and children’s puppeteers, as well as individual artists and actors. We have enjoyed support too from those with a personal passion for the arts – Vivien Duffield, my fellow Labour Peer Wilf Stevenson, and John Studinsky among them. But successive spending rounds have hit us hard.
It is clear to see why.
When struggling companies take repeated hits to their government funding, they reassess budgets and cut out anything considered surplus to their core functions. Sometimes, misguidedly in my view, companies have terminated their subscription to the NCA. But still, the organisation continues. And it is now needed even more, as cuts bite and people whose lives have been dedicated to different art forms find their way of life threatened. The arts are one of Britain’s greatest and continuing success stories – and we need to keep reminding people and governments of that fact.
Baroness Joan Bakewell is a broadcaster, author and backbench Labour Peer
Published 13th February 2013