Keynote speech to the State of the Arts conference

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Lowry, Salford

It’s clear that all speeches from this podium today will need to have a Valentine’s theme.  So let me try and rise to the challenge, by recognising that today is an opportunity for us to talk about the state of our relationship. 

Let me begin then with a declaration of love.  I love being the Minister for Culture, and it is a huge privilege and pleasure to represent such an important and vital part of our national life.  In a time of economic austerity and uncertainty, a theme we’ll hear a lot of, the arts are more important than ever.  And there is increasing recognition that you, the people in this room, are brilliant at what you do.

And what you do is important. I come from the school of thought that the arts are their own justification, valuable in and of themselves.  You don’t have to find other arguments to explain the importance of what you do.  In any event, I think those arguments have been made forcefully and effectively.  No one doubts the contributions that the arts make to our economy, our communities, our schools, and our well being.  And we see it today more than ever before.

Wherever you look British creativity is having a massive impact, here and abroad. Leonardo, Freud and Hockney drawing massive crowds, with Hirst to come at Tate Modern.  Warhorse, Jerusalem and One Man Two Guv’nors.  British artists, like Adele, dominate the album charts, British films top the box office, British fashion is centre stage.  Around the country, new and ambitious museums and galleries are opening from the Turner in Margate to the Hepworth in Wakefield; from M Shed, a new museum for Bristol, to Firstsite in Colchester; and from the Nottingham Contemporary to the recently refurbished Holburne Museum in Bath.

I said earlier I wanted to discuss the state of our relationship.  As with any relationship, it’s important to know where we are going.  So today is an opportunity for me to set out our approach to culture. 

First, we believe absolutely that Government must provide the core funding for the arts.  Many relationships do founder over money, and ours may be no different.  I am delighted, therefore, that in a time of economic austerity, we have limited the reduction in arts funding via the Arts Council to less than 5 per cent in real terms.  The Arts Council will receive some £2.3 billion over the next four years.

Second, we support the mixed economy model for funding the arts, which is almost unique to this country.  This means that the arts should support themselves through a combination of Government funding, philanthropy and earned income.

As part of this support, as part of this ecology, we have looked at ways to increase philanthropy, I want to make it clear, not to replace Government funding but to help the arts to a more sustainable footing. 

So in tough economic times, we have introduced:

  • an inheritance tax break for people who want to leave money to the arts in their will;

  • at last, a tax break for people who want to give art to museums while they are still alive;

  • an increase in the threshold for acceptance-in-lieu by £10 million a year;

  • we have established with the Arts Council a match-funding and capacity building scheme to help the arts raise more money from the private sector, individuals and charitable foundations.  The Catalyst fund is worth £100 million, and we will announce the first awards in May;

  • separate trusts for museums to ensure that they can spend the money they raise without it being counted as public spending.

Third, we absolutely support the arm’s length principle.  We want the arts to be as independent of Government as possible.  That doesn’t mean that the Government shouldn’t have an arts policy, or that it shouldn’t direct money towards programmes that it believes will be beneficial to the arts, whether it be philanthropy or education.  But it does mean that the Arts Council should be free to support the arts organisations it feels are worthy of support, without interference from politicians. 
So far, so evolutionary.

Fourth, a principle that I have tried to pursue is to break down the silos that exist within the arts; and between the arts and other creative industries.  I find it frustrating that many pioneering arts organisations don’t have the opportunity to share their expertise with others. It frustrates me that the arts, which are the bedrock of our creative industries, are not seen as an essential contributor to the debate about the future of those creative industries. And it concerns me that the arts may not be benefiting from the revolution in technology that we’re seeing in the twenty-first century.

So all across the piece, we are looking at collaboration. 

  • We have established for the first time a Creative Industries Council, which brings together two Government departments, BIS and DCMS, along with representatives of all the creative industries and the main public service broadcasters alongside the Arts Council, to take part in that conversation and that common agenda. 

  • We have merged the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council with the Arts Council, bringing together formally for the first time libraries, regional museums and cultural organisations. 

  • We have established a creative industries funders’ forum to bring together ACE, NESTA, the Technology Strategy Board (which is not a name that you would necessarily think has an interest in the arts, but it does), the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Creative England, the British Film Institute and Skillset to look together at how they can more effectively support the creative and cultural landscape. 

  • The Arts Council, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and NESTA have come together to create a digital R&D fund to help the arts and heritage benefit from developments in technology;

  • And as Dame Liz Forgan and Alan Davey have mentioned, the Arts Council and the BBC are collaborating on The Space, which some have described as the most significant cultural intervention since the Arts Council itself was formed.  (I am not taking credit for that, but I am an enthusiastic bystander).

I would like to do more.  My challenge to the Arts Council is that it can be much clearer about the development work that it does, and look at how it could do it more effectively.  It should be an organisation that shares ideas between the arts.  It should work as much with those it does not fund as with those it does.  It should work with not-for-profits and with business, and learn from both.

I’m also, as many of you will know, excited about what technology can do for the arts.  I think it provides an unprecedented opportunity to reach out to new audiences.  I don’t regard technology in binary terms - that the future will be totally different, or that technology will fundamentally change the way we live.  We will all still want to go to see live theatre, music, dance, or visit galleries and museums.  But I passionately believe that technology can enhance that experience, by deepening and enriching what you experience, or by simply letting you know that something is happening nearby. In the twenty-first century, as Patrick Hussey from Arts & Business wrote in his Guardian blog, algorithms are almost as important to the arts as audiences. And technology is about informality, flattening hierarchies and removing barriers - something that the arts in all their forms should embrace.

So, the arts should be seen as leaders in innovation in technology.

Fundamentally, what we want to achieve is the long-overdue recognition that the arts sit at the centre of the change we are all experiencing, not at the periphery.  The importance of the arts is growing, not diminishing.  As our science minister David Willetts has said, “instead of just thinking about STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths, we should add the Arts so it becomes STEAM”.

I am delighted that a report I commissioned, reported on the importance of the arts to the Video Games industry.

Fifthly, finally, we want to ensure that as many people as possible experience the arts, starting in schools.  We have already ensured that we have maintained free entry to our national museums - that could perhaps be a principle all of its own.  But now we need to reach out in other ways.

Following Darren Henley’s music review, we have launched the first ever National Plan for music education.  I think that is a massive achievement.  It’s an example of close collaboration between the DCMS and the Department for Education.  Again, it is heartening, if you are looking for ways to justify the arts, that the DfE has explicitly recognised the importance of music education in underpinning a rigorous academic education.  The plan also puts the Arts Council - and therefore arts organisations - at the centre of the strategy.  The Arts Council will assess the bids for funding in the next few months.  Again, we are looking to break down the barriers, to see schools and local authority music services working with leading local, regional and national music organisations to deliver a rich, varied and full curriculum for school children. 

Next week, we will publish Darren Henley’s review of Cultural Education.  We want to build on the national plan for music with the first ever national plan for cultural education, covering as much ground as possible from archaeology to architecture and the built environment, archives, craft, dance, design, digital arts, drama and theatre, film and cinemas, galleries, heritage, libraries, literature, live performance, museums, poetry and the visual arts. We want to work with arts organisations large and small and encourage them to play their part in providing children with varied cultural experiences.  The review process has already had an impact, with the main Lottery funders  - for arts, heritage and film - already looking at how they can work more closely together on the ways that they support cultural education.  Amazingly, they had never formally collaborated before.

Finally, we cannot ensure that as many people experience the arts unless the arts are in as many places as possible.  So we also need to do much more to support artists and arts organisations outside London.  The catalyst fund will make an important contribution, as will the continuing “Grants for the Arts” programme.  But I am really delighted by the Arts Council’s decision to establish the £37 million “Creative People and Places Fund”.  Over the next three years, fifteen areas of the country with a low level of arts engagement will receive grants of between £500,000 and £3 million to establish innovative and fresh arts projects, to help build a vibrant cultural infrastructure.  This is exactly the kind of innovation we need. 

So, we are focussing on securing funding; developing a mixed economy for the arts; fostering philanthropy; maintaining the arms’ length principle; encouraging collaboration; embracing technology; working with creative industries; and working in partnership on a cultural education national plan.

As Dame Liz Forgan has mentioned, 2012 is the year when Britain’s creativity takes centre stage, as it deserves to.  When people come to Britain for the Games, they will see a confident, vibrant country regaining its economic strength, not at the expense of world class culture and the arts, but precisely because of it.  For six weeks we are going to be the centre of global attention. The London 2012 Festival - and here I pay tribute to Ruth Mackenzie’s vision and determination -  will showcase the best that we have to offer in the arts and creative industries.  West End LIVE will feature the cast of every single West End musical performing for free; Gustavo Dudamel performing with the children of Stirling; and Land of Giants, the largest outdoor arts event ever seen in Northern Ireland performed on the Titanic slipways in Belfast. And that’s not to mention the likes of the UK premiere of Wynton Marsalis’ Swing Symphony, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle; an epic new choral work from composer Jonathan Harvey to be performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; and a major exhibition of contemporary West African art in Manchester.

I hope you will agree that there is a huge amount to look forward to.  I’m sorry that a speech like this can never really avoid jargon, or the mundane prose of policy.  But we should never forget that at the heart of everything we do is the artist, support for artists and freedom for artists.  As John F Kennedy so memorably said when speaking about the poet Robert Frost: “The artist [is] the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state…the artist’s fidelity [strengthens] the fibre of our national life…I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist”.

I say, Amen to that.

Thank you.