Freezing our lifeblood, ignoring our heartbeat
Two reports this week highlight the strange contradiction in our treatment of culture, how as a nation we can both love it and loathe it. One tells us that if there is an economic recovery underway in this country, it is because of the creative industries that receive no recognition in the Brexit negotiations that so badly need something pointing upwards. The other that our museums and galleries, our glory and the things that millions come from all over the world to see, are having their lifeblood frozen in their veins by cash cuts.
The lifeblood is the acquisition process that keeps museums from becoming dead repositories – this incredible Lorenzetti triptych transformed Hull’s Ferens Gallery at the start of its year of culture. New objects do not simply take up much needed room, they complete narratives, inspire special exhibitions, inform research, and fascinate an ever more interested public. Somehow politicians have never understood this. Up to three or four decades ago national funded institutions got two grants, one for running costs and a smaller but significant one for acquisitions. Then Lord Gowrie, in Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet as arts minister (who later left politics to become chairman of Sotheby’s because he couldn’t live on a minister’s salary), decided to “tidy it all up” by combining them. When it was put to him that this was effectively abolishing the acquisition fund, he said “no, no it’ll all be all right, it’s incorporated, you’ll see”. Within three years the grants were cut to below what the combined allocations had been, and acquisition funds have never been restored.
It takes a history professor (at an American university), to highlight the cryogenic effects of this on museums. His Why Collect? report (https://www.artfund.org/assets/downloads/why-collect-report.pdf ) shows that the UK government spends less on culture in percentage terms than Denmark, France or Latvia. It also shows that junior curators, the poor bloody infantry with shoals of PhDs among its cvs, that has to keep clean, record and love these objects, are paid 25% less than the market rate. http://www.artsindustry.co.uk/news/1033-museums-collecting-frozen-by-funding-cuts
Nesta’s report (www.nesta.org.uk/publications/creative-nation) researched with the Creative Industries Council, shows how the creative industries are surging head at an average 11% growth of any other sector in the economy, and will be worth a million new jobs by 2030. It's the UK’s modern heartbeat, but it’s happening organically, without the help of any national policy or in spite of the lack of it. “If cities can increase the number of higher growth, scale-up creative businesses, the creative industries could make a dent in the UK’s productivity problem too” says Nesta’s Hasan Bakshi. “Providing the climate for such businesses to grow should be a top priority for local economic policymakers”. http://www.artsindustry.co.uk/news/1032-creative-industries-on-track-to-create-1m-local-jobs-nesta
In both cases the unevenness of local authority funding is as much to blame as the disinterestedness of central government. There needs to be a national system of regional funding for our sustainable arts and creative resources – not least by paying those involved a decent wage – run by our city powerhouses to ensure there is still something for tourists to see, and that we have at least one industrial sector we can boast about.