The final curtain call?

Maggie JonesMaggie Jones asks: is the DCMS about to finish its West End run?

The economic benefits of the arts are not only self evident for most individuals involved in the sector, it is also backed up by impressive statistics. DCMS itself has calculated that the creative industries account for 6.2% of the goods and services in our economy and £16.6bn in exports. More recent figures show the 1.5m people who work in the arts generate £70,000 a minute. When the then Labour Minister Chris Smith coined the phrase ‘creative industries’ following the 1997 General Election, it was precisely to underline the importance of the arts and tourism to our future economic growth.

So it’s interesting that Maria Miller has belatedly woken up to this fact. In her first major speech on the arts in seven months as Culture Secretary, she has urged arts organisations to “hammer home the value of culture to our economy”. I am sure there are many arts leaders who feel they have been doing little else recently. For example, a recent Arts Council Report has illustrated how investment in this sector reaps returns – with every % of government arts spending yielding four times as much towards the GDP.

Many people however, are beginning to ask whether Ms Miller’s recent conversion to the arts will have any impact. Her predecessor offered up significant cuts to the Treasury in the last spending round and now there are demands for a further 10% savings – something she will find difficult to resist. Meanwhile, she is powerless to stop her colleague Eric Pickles chopping local authority grants to such an extent that the LGA estimate that up to 90% of local cultural funding will have disappeared by 2020. 

It also seems that nobody is able to halt Michael Gove’s assault on the teaching of creative subjects in schools. His new curriculum, with its emphasis on teaching by rote and learning facts has little space for art, design, music or drama and the skills such as curiosity, experimentation and reflection which they engender. So there is a real risk that the next generation of youngsters will not have the creative skills to keep the UK at the forefront of the global market.

But there is a more fundamental concern about the singular focus on economic outcomes being taken by the Culture Secretary. 

If arts funding becomes predicated on commercial success you end up, inevitably, with an inferior product. It would be epitomised by a West End full of musical revivals; and who would have taken the risk to invest in a puppet show of First World War horses? There has to be a role for subsidised arts to invest in new blood and enable risk-taking. There also has to be a concern that we are losing the right to value art for its own sake, and for the contribution it makes to our quality of life and wellbeing. These assets are difficult to measure but none the less valid.

The fact remains that the arts have been left to languish in an ineffectual DCMS when their place at the heart of our economic revival should have been centre stage with support from BIS and the Treasury. It’s therefore not surprising that commentators are beginning to speculate whether this diminished Department has any future at all. Ms Miller may well find she has walked onto the stage too late when the cast have left and the last curtain call is over.

Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is a member of Labour’s Shadow DCMS team in the Lords

Published 12th June 2013

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