Will 7 May change anything?

Nicola Sullivan examines the main political parties’ stance on culture and heritage
Nicola Sullivan
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Unfortunately for the museum sector, arts, culture and heritage will never provide the fireworks during the run-up to a general election, especially one so ferociously fought.

But despite the noise surrounding divisive topics such as Trident, immigration, welfare and managing the deficit, talk about culture can just about be heard.
 
The Culture Debate on 7 April, chaired by BBC journalist Martha Kearney, saw representatives from the five main political parties (Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens and Ukip) discuss their positions on culture and the creative industries.

While the stage at the Royal Opera House on which the panel sat has certainly seen a great deal more drama, some interesting points were made about public funding, inclusion, education and philanthropy.
 
In his opening gambit, Ed Vaizey, the minister for culture, said funding cuts had been balanced by an increase in lottery funding to the arts, which meant overall funding during the past five years had been broadly the same as the previous five.

Funding imbalance

But Sam West, the chairman of the National Campaign for the Arts Research and Education, argued that funding for the arts in England had fallen “further and faster than ever before”.

The organisation’s Arts Index, published in 2013, showed that levels of combined funding (treasury, local authority and lottery) fell by almost £2 to £17.68 per person in 2010-11 and by a further £1.26 to £16.42 per person in 2011-12.

During the debate, West asked why arts policy always amounted to “We love you – here’s less”.
 
While defending the government’s decision to cut the grant-in-aid to Arts Council England, Vaizey said that National Portfolio Organisations funded by it, such as the Royal Opera House, were ringfenced as far as possible. He did, however, acknowledge the loss of programmes such as Creative Partnerships.
 
“Where we had to make cuts, we tried to make sure they wouldn’t affect frontline arts organisations,” the minister said.

There are subtle distinctions between the parties’ views on funding. Although everyone agreed on the need for public and private funding, Vaizey and Peter Whittle, the culture spokesman for Ukip, talked most about the importance of philanthropy.
 
A “much stronger culture of giving” was required to match public funding of the arts, Whittle said. But Harriet Harman, the shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport, warned that an increasing reliance on private donors would lead to an “imbalance” of private donations inside and outside London. She added that around 70% of private donations came from London, compared with 30% from outside the capital.

Elsewhere in the UK, an arts strategy heavily based on philanthropy is even less likely to be viable.

A leading figure in the museum sector in Northern Ireland, who didn’t want to be named, says: “Philanthropy is a lovely word but there isn’t any. It is like talking about commercial sponsorship – in this neck of the woods there isn’t any.”
 
John Marjoram, the development officer at the Federation of Museums and Art Galleries of Wales, expresses a similar view. “There’s a big problem,” he says. “All philanthropy is concentrated in London. In Wales, if there is any philanthropy of significance it is going to be in Cardiff.”
 
When asked during the Culture Debate about the challenges associated with giving more funds to local government, Jane Bonham-Carter, the co-chairwoman of the Liberal Democrat’s committee on culture, spoke about the benefits of a mixed funding approach. She also said that money for cultural institutions “doesn’t all have to come from public funds” and pointed out that The Lowry in Salford provided some of its own funding.

She added: “Part of the arts thriving is that people have the money to appreciate the arts and getting the economy back on track is all part of that.”

Sharon Heal, the director of the Museums Association, says: “The past few years have been tough for many museums, with cuts in funding from central government and local authorities. Museums have upped their game in terms of increasing commercial funding and philanthropy. However, this can’t replace public funding.”
 
Asked whether Labour would reverse the cuts, Harman said its approach would not be as “extreme” as the Conservatives. “We do want to get the deficit down but in a more measured and fair way,” she said.

Engaging people

Meanwhile, Martin Dobson, the Green Party spokesman for culture, media and sport, said there needed to be a big change in the way the arts were funded and promised to put more funding into the arts council and local authorities.
 
“We would put a lot more money into local resources to restore public services and reflate local economies in that way – the arts would be a big part of that,” Dobson said.

All the parties at the debate agreed that more effort should be made to engage people in the arts and culture while they were in education, most notably Harman, who was keen to emphasise Labour’s manifesto promise that every child would be entitled to a creative and cultural education that would be inspected by the schools watchdog, Ofsted, and given the opportunity to attend cultural after-school clubs.
 
The recently published Warwick Commission report on the future of cultural value highlighted the importance of education. Its research found that publicly funded culture and heritage organisations were accessed by a narrow social, economic, ethnic and educated demographic.

It has recommended the creation of a cross-party plan to promote diversity; a broadening of the education curriculum to ensure creative subjects are not pushed out; the exploiting of opportunities offered by digital media; and the addressing of cultural imbalances. It also says that an arts or media subject should be included in the English baccalaureate.
 
“Putting cultural education back on the agenda is an interesting idea and there is certainly a feeling in the sector that this has been undermined by changes in the national curriculum,” Heal says.
 
“Museums are great spaces for out-of-the-classroom learning and it would be good to see some formal support for this kind of activity.”

Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party were offered the chance to take part in the Culture Debate but declined. Perhaps this is not surprising since arts and culture are largely devolved.
 
Commenting on the SNP’s anti-austerity stance, Nat Edwards, the Scotland representative for the Museums Association, says: “Tempered by the realism that everyone has to balance their budgets, and Scottish museums haven’t been immune from cuts, an anti-austerity message is not a bad thing for a sector that relies on a high level of public subsidy.”
 
Joanne Orr, the chief executive of Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS), says there is strong support for museums and heritage in Scotland and an “engaged” cross-party group on culture. But she adds that there are “funding pressures” and some “tough decisions” to come.

Strategic conversation

Earlier this year, MGS organised visits by MSPs to museums across Scotland to encourage them to raise the profile of venues in their area.
 
Orr says: “To date, 16 MSPs from different parties have taken up this opportunity
and experienced first-hand how museums in their constituencies are delivering across health and well-being, education and social agendas.

The visits have also increased awareness of the challenges faced by those museums.
“Establishing this type of relationship is important for museums when the tough funding decisions are being made.”

Whatever the outcome of the election, museums across the UK will have one challenge in common – a continued lack of public funding. “I doubt there will be any more funding whichever party wins,” Heal says.
 
“What we need is a strategic conversation about the future funding of museums.”

Manifesto watch: what the UK-wide parties are pledging for the cultural sector

The Labour Party has promised universal entitlement to a creative education so that every young person has access to cultural activity, including after-school clubs. It says institutions that require arts funding will be required to open their doors to young people and that a Labour government will work with public bodies to rebalance arts funding across the country. It has also reaffirmed its commitment to universal free admission to cultural institutions.

The Conservative Party says it will keep galleries and museums free to enter and give these institutions greater financial autonomy to use their budgets as they see fit. Arts funding will be used to support projects in the North, including the creation of a new India gallery for Manchester Museum in partnership with the British Museum. It will also support plans for a new concert hall in London.

The Liberal Democrats pledge to promote the arts as a treatment for obesity and mental health problems. It says it will widen the evidence base proving that arts and sports can help people manage health conditions. Its other pledges are: maintaining free access to museums (which will be given greater autonomy); continuing support for the Creative Industries Council; and encouraging creativity in schools and universities.  

The Green Party pledges to increase government arts funding by £500m a year to make up for the cuts made since 2010, and to reinstate proper levels of funding for local authorities to help them keep local museums, theatres and art galleries open.

Ukip says it will “encourage pride” in Britain among young people, who have become detached from its national cultural heritage, and supports what it calls a “chronological understanding” of British history and achievements in the National Curriculum. It will also appoint a dedicated minister for heritage and tourism; ensure tax and planning policies support historic buildings and countryside, and remove VAT from repairs on listed buildings.


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