Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Death by a thousand cuts

When the Coalition announced its spending review, arts writers warned of a new dark age of philistinism that would follow in the wake of government cuts in arts funding. They were right.

The harsh reality of the triple attack on culture in Britain is now becoming clear: the £19 million cut (30%) in the Arts Council funding; a 26% cut in local government funds; and the targeting of humanities and arts courses in higher education funding.

Local councils are taking desperate measures to try and keep their museums and galleries open. Bolton council has admitted it plans to auction off two Picasso etchings and paintings by outstanding artists including Millais, Sickert, Burne Jones from its collection. The council hopes to raise £500,000 from this sale.

Meanwhile Leicester council has already done the dirty deed. In its wisdom, the council has already offloaded 124 paintings, including one by the Camden Town school colourist Frederick Gore, “for a very modest £148,000, and have earmarked another 100 worth, they reckon, £50,000”.

As Simon Tait of Arts Industry noted yesterday: “ The fact that Leicester’s pictures were all in store, having been bought to show in the city’s schools, doesn’t mean they weren’t important; just that the municipality didn’t know what it had got - nor, probably, what it's got rid of for small change.”

And that is just it – selling off precious public assets for “small change”, just as Bury council did a few years back when it sold a Lowry from its collection, is an expression of total moral and political bankruptcy. In North Yorkshire, the council is cutting arts spending by 89%. In Somerset and Moray council funding arts organisations are being cut 100%. Moray Council was the first Scottish local authority to propose cutting its entire arts budget.

The response of Labour’s shadow culture secretary Ivan Lewis to the looming cultural dark ages, bleated out at a State of the Arts conference in February, is that a “new covenant” was needed so the strongest would support the weakest.

Tristram Hunt, historian and Labour MP for Stoke on Trent Central, shares Lewis’ abject “divide and rule” strategy, pitting the major cultural centres against the regions. Now he is demanding that top museums and galleries should start charging. If “American tourists and continental mini-breakers have no problem paying” entry fees elsewhere in Europe , he opines, “why not a fiver for London’s great galleries”. This, he claims astonishingly, is a “truly equitable” policy.

So museums must introduce a nationality test before admitting anyone? Or will there be a means test? The mind shudders. And all because Hunt like his New Labour colleagues shares the Coalition’s “there is no alternative” to the corporate business, profit-driven economic model.

Others argue that the way forward for the arts is for closer ties with business and more philanthropy. But a February report by Art and Business shows that 80% of FTSE 100 companies give nothing at all to the arts. Philanthropic giving has fallen by 17%. Business investment has fallen by 11%.

Many artists and arts administrators have spoken out to express their horror at what is happening. Turner prize-winning artist Anish Kapoor last week warned that it would take decades to recover from the damage caused by current cuts.

We should reject the death by a thousand cuts being promoted not only by the Coalition government but its so-called Labour opposition. What is required is an alternative, not-for-profit approach to the economy, in which art and culture are not viewed as a luxury or an “add-on” but as central to what makes us truly human.

Corinna Lotz

A World to Win secretary

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