Arts manifestos toe the party line

Felicity Heywood, Issue 110/04, p15, 01.04.2010
Parties' election policies on the arts have a familiar ring to them

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have released their arts manifestos ahead of the call for a general election. Labour will release theirs once a date has been announced.

There is commitment from all three parties to free admission, changes to the National Lottery, a move away from “restrictive” targets, expanded access and an extension of the Acceptance in Lieu scheme to cover lifetime giving. 

Louise de Winter, director of the National Campaign for the Arts, says this consensus proves the arts world has reached a point where the political case for investment has not only been made, but is positively supported.

But agreement can also be seen as a lack of creative and original thinking. Maurice Davies, head of policy and communications at the Museums Association, notes how little museums or Renaissance in the Regions figure in the Lib-Dem and Tory manifestos.

He points to Arts Council England’s regional theatre strategy, which took a planned approach to investing in major regional theatres so that most people would have a serious theatre nearby, as being further ahead with its “coordinated thinking”.

“There is no serious strategic thinking about getting national collections around the country,” says Davies.

Indeed, the Lib-Dems’ 15-page manifesto says it is for the arts organisations that receive regular government funding to provide leadership across the sector. However, it does applaud the national museums’ partnership projects with the regions, while also pointing out improvements to local museums as a consequence of Renaissance in the Regions.

But with the disappointment felt by the sector in the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council’s (MLA) Leading Your Museums document, which aimed to offer some strategic direction to the sector, there has instead been activity on a regional basis, with varying degrees of success.

Davies says the past 10 years have been about reinvesting in the sector. But he said Labour’s agenda is essentially still that of its first culture secretary, Chris Smith – that of access and learning.

He says more recent government initiatives, such as Excellence and Find Your Talent, have started to reshape the cultural sector. But they have not been followed through.

De Winter voices concern that Labour still appears fixated on initiatives such as free tickets as a solution to widening access. “We would like to see some commitment to consulting the sector on future initiatives,” she says.

The difference between Smith’s era and now is that less money is available. And the parties are being cautious as a result. Culture minister Margaret Hodge’s call last month for the arts budget to be ringfenced did not detail at what level.

The Conservatives have already dropped heavy hints about a cut, while the Lib-Dems have committed to maintaining current levels of funding.

The devil will be in the detail – and that detail will be the financial allocation from the party in government. There is also the continued question of whether the sector has enough political clout.

National museum directors may well have the ear of the Treasury, but there is a feeling that the museum sector is weakened by these very institutions being funded directly from the public purse, rather than having a single-body advocate such as the arts council, through which all funding to arts institutions passes.

There is also the question of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. Neither manifesto mentioned the body but last month on the department for culture’s website, Hodge revealed there would be consideration for a separate strategic body for libraries. Could this mean the end of the MLA?

Arts policies

Conservatives

The Future of the Arts with a Conservative Government

- Secure long-term funding based on the mixed economy and arm’s-length principle
- Promotion of excellence in the arts
- Access to as many people as possible of every age and from every background
- More freedom to national museums to raise money for capital projects
- Multi-year funding arrangements for “our most successful institutions”.

Liberal Democrats

The Power of Creativity

- Change the way the National Lottery is taxed to generate more money for arts and heritage as well as for the Treasury
- Enable museums to be more enterprising and independent through a new administrative status
- More regional cultural bodies should be considered for national status
- Commitment to maintaining investment.
- Target cut-price tickets, free entry or taster sessions at new audiences and the socially excluded through networks in the third sector and corporate social responsibility departments
- Open up the Government Art Collection to enable organisations such as schools and hospitals, and art-lending schemes, to select works for display
- “The arts . . . should be recognised and celebrated more visibly by Number 10.”

Labour

Arts manifesto yet to be announced

- Ensure all Britain benefits from the digital revolution
- Open arts and culture to as many people as possible
- Build on free theatre and Find Your Talent schemes.