The magnitude and harshness of the age of austerity which the Coalition seeks to impose is becoming clearer by the hour. Not only are the basics of life - pensions, jobs, benefits and the health service - threatened, but so is the chance for the many to enjoy culture.
Leading figures in the arts world led by Tate director Nicholas Serota have joined together to plead with the government not to make 25 to 40% cuts in arts spending as part of the slashing of the budget deficit. Serota warned that a “cultural recession” would result if the cuts went ahead.
“Theatres will go dark, orchestras will disband, museums will shut and sport will suffer too. A whole generation of young people will be denied access to the fruits of everything that has been built up in the last 10 years,” he wrote in the London Evening Standard.
Others, including Jude Kelly who runs the South Bank complex, Serpentine Gallery director Julia Peyton Jones, Vicky Heywood of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Alistair Spalding of Sadlers Wells, gave stark warnings of the effects the cuts would have.
The vast amounts of capital sloshing around money markets until the credit crunch made business sponsorship relatively easy, as companies sought to improve their image. Serota’s stellar career as Tate director since 1988 saw him exploit to the hilt the possibilities for the arts. But as he now indicates, the present cuts will destroy that way of doing things.
Gifts from private donors can be taken away as freely as they are given, Peyton Jones said. Without some reliable public funding, arts bodies will be paralysed and many forced to close down. They were backed up by a group of leading benefactors who signed a letter to David Cameron saying that philanthropy could not be a substitute for state funding.
Serota quoted Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt, who claimed before the election (of course): “It is actually in a recession that people need art the most”. Compared to the rest of the budget cuts, arts spending forms a relatively small part. Perhaps Serota and others hope that by using the Tories’ own arguments against them and the need to present a fine façade for the 2012 Olympics, the government will make some concessions.
Serota and others are right to point to the success of free museum and gallery entry and other achievements by arts professionals over the past 20 years. And of course, professionals in the arts need to defend their particular sector against the Lib-Con cuts juggernaut. It’s great that they are joining together to speak out.
Arguing a special case for one or other section of public spending, however, is a blinkered and dangerous way to go. Even if some sections of the arts succeed in winning special dispensation, hundreds of thousands of other people are scheduled to lose their jobs, key services, pension rights and see their standard of living reduced.
It’s time to stop scrambling for the crumbs from the tables of the super-rich and the government and look at the bigger picture. Developing a strategy for bringing together all those fighting the cuts, not reducing ourselves to defending one patch as against another, is surely the way to go. If we don’t, the Coalition will pick sections of society and communities off one by one.
That strategy must involve creative political and economic alternatives to answer the capitalist crisis to enable all those opposed to the Coalition’s policies to mount a serious challenge to its rule.
A World to Win secretary