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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

My manifesto for a richer life

By Norman Lebrecht / January 3, 2001

Election year offers a chance to change radically Britain's flawed and outdated relationship between government and the arts.

LIKE old war-horses to a bugle call, columnists feel a tingle in their extremities at the dawning of an election year. Not that much is likely to change - least of all in the arts, which no party has ever placed at the heart of its programme.

Peckham library: foyer events can be organised to introduce young people to art
Politicians fear that fighting for culture on the hustings would risk a demotic backlash. Also, any debate on the arts tends to get bogged down over money, which most governments want to cut. The Germans are struggling to slash spending without offending the gods in Valhalla and two conductors in Berlin. In the US, voices in the Bush team, led by the incoming vice-president's formidable wife, Lynne Cheney, have called for an end to federal aid for the arts.

Here in Britain, we muddle along on a formula that Maynard Keynes sneaked past the War Cabinet in 1945 - a hotch-potch that Keynes himself described as "half-baked" and which survives unrevised to this day. On to Keynes's rickety Arts Council we have piled a National Lottery, an interventionist Culture Department and tax incentives for private donations - with the result that the arts are in constant crisis and the politicians are clueless.

Those who thought that devolution would make a thousand flowers bloom have been swiftly disabused. The arts in Wales complain of Third World rations; in Scotland new opera productions have been halted until next summer. In London, the Royal Opera House, supposed flagship of British arts, is heading hopelessly for the rocks.

So, to clear the decks, I have set out a manifesto that is offered freely to all parties in the hope that they will get to grips with the arts and go into the election with plans for a new relationship between state and stage. Not all of my proposals are original and some may prove too radical for mainstream politics. Their aim is to ensure that tax money is wisely spent and that the arts are able to fulfil a more meaningful role.

1. Cut the double act

The elevation of culture to Cabinet status in 1991 was a mixed blessing, creating an extra tier of bureaucracy. Under New Labour, the Culture Department has taken decisions concerning Covent Garden and the South Bank Centre away from the Arts Council, and appointed a Quest team to monitor its work. Stripped of independence, the Council survives as a Blairite parrot and convenient scapegoat.

Both make pleasant pets, but one tier must surely go. Scrapping the Arts Council of England would save £14.27 million a year, enough to fund a national theatre. Abolishing the Scottish and Welsh Councils would produce comparable savings. None would be much missed. In future, ministers would be held accountable for arts failures and, more importantly, the arts would become a central government concern, no longer held at notional arm's length.

2. Strip down

Most Arts Council clients have already been farmed out to local arts boards, on the grounds that Newcastle knows better than any London-based panel how many orchestras and museums it needs and can afford. Giving the arts back to grass-roots control is a prerequisite for renewal.

What is to be done with the "national" companies? The South Bank needs to be restored to the Greater London Assembly. The Royal National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company can be funded from Whitehall, along with Covent Garden, which should, preferably, be privatised.

3. It could be you

The National Lottery has yielded novel forms of lunacy. At present, a tin shed in Totnes can put in for a grant and - after spending a million or so on ACE-funded "consultants" - might come out a winner. The process has produced a flush of new buildings that cannot afford to stay open all year, let alone attract worthwhile acts. The nadir of Lottery loopiness was Sheffield's National Centre for Popular Music.

The process needs to be reversed. Instead of inviting applications for Lottery grants, the Culture Department should identify areas of arts need and then build big. A Norman Foster or Frank Gehry marvel in Bristol would gain more attention for culture than a £2 million arts centre in Ballymena.

4. Take to the air

The severest blow that the arts have suffered is not a decline of state funding but a loss of television time. Over the past five years, the BBC has halved its cultural output, and ITV channels regularly defy their licence terms, which require a minimum of 15-30 minutes' arts programming a week. There is not a single books programme on the whole of UK television. A generation has been robbed of the chance to discover arts.

The next government needs to act. ITV companies that fail to meet arts obligations should be fined - £100,000 a minute should concentrate the minds at Carlton and Granada. The BBC, having neglected national theatres and orchestras, should be made to clear 20 nights a year for live relays, yielding editorial control to performing organisations. Politicians of all parties have come to recognise that there is no point pumping money into the arts if public television is impenetrably philistine.

5. And the net

The two market-leaders in arts web-casting are based in Britain. Both are being held back by delays in fast-cable installation. The state may need to press the phone companies to get cracking.

6. Expand the Mozart Effect

It has been repeatedly demonstrated that exposure to classical arts appears to make kids brighter, patients healthier and prisoners more likely to reform. The governor of one US state now sends a classical disc to every new-born babe. In Sweden, they play Mozart in maternity wards to ease labour pains. Our cultural budget must help to provide live classical music and theatre in schools, hospitals and jails.

7. Teaching the teachers

This country has far too many music and drama colleges of variable excellence, at least 10 in London alone. Students are taught little beyond performance skills. Royal Academies and Colleges should be required to offer fast-track courses in educational psychology and social work, encouraging those students who may not make it as performers to use their artistic talents in the caring professions, applying their lesser talents where they can do most good.

8. Building a library

The dereliction of our Victorian public library system is a dirty national scandal. Millions of precious books have been thrown into skips, to be replaced by tacky videos. Before libraries squander their budgetary future on DVDs, we need to call a time-out to redefine their fundamental purpose.

Knowledge, not entertainment, must be paramount - but new libraries like the one in Peckham can also be used to introduce young people to art by means of regular foyer events. We need fewer arts centres, and more libraries where art can be informally encountered.

These are but a few of the shortcomings that could be resolved by any party bold enough to give arts and leisure the same priority as health and crime. It is no longer true to say that there are no votes in the arts. At the last accounting, 25 million people a year attended some form of publicly funded arts event in Britain. Even in a landslide landscape, this may just be enough to tip the balance in an election that looks to be woefully low on issues.

Instead of Butskellite consensus and Keynsian fudge, a party bold enough to dream about the quality of life could go to the polls later this year with visions of a New Jerusalem.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999