Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A new vista needed

For the British Library, the immediate vista is how to deal with the threat of deep government spending cuts. So it was ironic that the prestigious library should provide the venue for Bill Gates, the world’s richest man, to launch his corporation’s new operating system, called Vista. Microsoft’s monopoly will guarantee vast profits as the OS is installed on every new PC. The BL, meanwhile, may be forced to start charging for admission to its famous reading rooms - which are visited by 400,000 people a year - and end its policy of acquiring every new publication in Britain. Gates is a big fan of New Labour and has direct access to Downing Street because he is a pioneer of the global market economy. Library officials, however, have to stay at a distance and issue a briefing paper to MPs and Chancellor Gordon Brown that outline measures they would have to take if the widely speculated cuts of between 5% and 7% come to fruition. These include charges, reduced hours and gallery closures. Spending on research journals and books would be slashed, "undermining 250 years of collecting", officials say. Efforts to establish a digital library would be wrecked. "We will be unable to fulfil our statutory obligations for legal deposit of electronic material," the paper says. Limits would also be imposed on the national newspaper collection "and the growing popular use of newspapers as primary sources for sports and family history research will develop no further". The collection now includes 150 million items, in most languages. The earliest dated printed book, the Diamond Sutra, of 868, can be seen in the exhibition galleries. Also held are the Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne gospels, Leonardo da Vinci's Notebook, The Times from 1788, Beatles’ manuscripts and a recording of Nelson Mandela's trial speech The BL has spent the past five years making £40m of "efficiency savings" and shedding 5% of the workforce and basically says it can’t go any further.

The BL is not the only national institution threatened by cuts. The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square occupies a strategic position both geographically and metaphorically in the culture of London and the country as a whole. Since it was founded in 1824 by an Act of Parliament, its main collection has always been free. In a recent speech, director Charles Saumarez Smith denounced the epic waste of money on the Dome. He noted New Labour’s kow-towing to the backward populism of the tabloid press and its miserable attitude to "high" culture. And he criticised its "failure to engage in any deeper way with the people’s sense of themselves". "The Chancellor is threatening to cut the grants of museums and galleries by seven per cent per annum for three successive years. Gordon Brown will thereby effectively wipe out all the benefits of the past 10 years. I cannot believe the Chancellor wants this to happen," he added, somewhat disingenuously. David Barrie of the Art Fund and Victoria and Albert Museum director Mark Jones have also warned of low spending on the arts. Anthea Case, of Heritage Link, has warned that over 17,000 heritage buildings are at risk as funding has fallen drastically over the past two years. While starving the arts, New Labour has wasted £789 million on the Millennium Dome project, not to speak of the billions committed to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and replacing Trident nuclear missiles. Instead of leaving arts administrators to plead desperately for more private funding and sponsorship, a different approach is needed. Cultural activities and artistic production should not be seen as a luxury for the elite, but be open to all and supported by society as a whole. For that to happen we need a whole new vista that can takes us beyond our bottom-line society.

Corinna Lotz, arts editor

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