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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Gordon gets it right with culture

By Norman Lebrecht / February 27, 2008

If one clear blue line can be drawn between the eras of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown it is in the area of arts policy, usually the lowest rung of governance. The shift is the more remarkable since Brown has shown no prior interest and is not prone to go out much of an evening.

Yet since his accession last June, Brown had made culture a priority, stimulating a 2008 flurry of initiatives that includes a pilot scheme proposal for five weekly hours of arts in schools, 5,000 creative apprenticeships and a World Collections scheme that aims to position Britain as the leading exporter of curatorial expertise.

These things do not happen without direction from the top. ‘The calls just keep coming in from Number 10 saying, “how are you getting on?” confides one Culture Department official. ‘It’s all rather encouraging.’

Just how far New Labour has come in the past eight months is signalled by the title of last week’s creative industries document, From the Margins to the Mainstream. Under Blair, after the initial Cool Britannia hot flush, arts were a peripheral nuisance to be ignored most of the time and appeased when enraged. ‘Is it a matter of money?’ the prime minister would ask in his most syrupy tone across a round-table of arts leaders, oblivious to the offence he gave to a gathering of idealists.

Under Brown, the first thing to change was the tone. Never a glamour seeker, the new premier greets artists with a respect that verges on the deferential, his head inclined as if in prayer when opening an exhibition. He makes no pretence of being pro-art, only of promoting national success.

His pick as Culture Secretary was a quiet policy wonk with a passion for going to theatre and concerts. James Purnell, on his first day in office, asked Sir Brian McMaster, the retired Edinburgh Festival boss, to conduct a review of arts policy.

That review was rigged. Purnell had been warned by officials that McMaster was a highbrow grandee. The Culture Secretary knew exactly what to expect and McMaster responded with a report that advocated 'excellence' – a noun banned from the Blair lexicon for its implicit elitism.

Instead of pressing the arts to dumb down to a multicultural audience, McMaster argued that work of the highest quality is its own magnet, drawing crowds to any hot ticket. Innovation and risk-taking deserved greater subsidy than political correctness and box-ticking. He called for more artists on arts boards and a return to peer review, by which theatre professionals assess each other, in preference to externally imposed solutions.

With barely a murmur from the PC brigade, McMaster became government policy. It was presented to Parliament last month as ‘the right way forward’ by Purnell’s successor, Andy Burnham, who was installed in the reshuffle enforced by Peter Hain’s election-expenses resignation. Before moving up to Work and Pensions, Purnell stunned his officials by announcing a £3 million World Collections Programme under British Museum chief Neil MacGregor without DCMS discussion. That idea is said to have landed direct from Downing Street.

Burnham has adopted Purnell’s changes with enthusiasm, albeit with a shift of focus. A Liverpudlian with a Manchester-area constituency and a lifelong football-going habit, he spends his weekends in the northwest and partakes of its visual cultures. He is capable of doing seven museums and galleries over two days and his presence has given a morale boost to Liverpool’s faltering Year of Culture, a chaotic fest which has just lost its chief executive with 10 months still to go. Burnham is the first Culture Secretary to come from outside London’s so-called ‘metropolitan cliques’ and he brings a broader base to the Brownite reforms.

As the father of three small children, Burnham put a good deal of personal input into the arts-in-schools idea and the apprenticeships scheme, both of which had been knocking around the DCMS for years before the Brown acceleration. Both, however, need more work and a measure of good fortune.

Doubts about having more art in schools have been raised by a range of opinion, from head teachers to local authorities. There is a gulf of understanding between the good intentions for two or three years hence and the classroom reality of 2008. There may be no point in introducing opera to schools where teachers have received no training and pupils, unprepared, have never heard the sound of a solo piano or seen a painting on the wall.

That gap has to be addressed and a finger is being wagged at the BBC, which has reduced arts programming to celebrity chat and talent contests. Officials are hoping that Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust and formerly a very active chair of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, will lead the BBC back to the high ground and the presence of arts back into every home. If not, the scheme must fail.

The apprenticeships scheme depends likewise on adequate state education and a thriving economy. Creative industries, according to official stats, account for 7.3 percent of UK GDP and have grown twice as fast as the rest of the economy over the past decade – which is why Gordon Brown is staking so much on culture.

But there are troubles ahead. The music industry is in a bad way and the rest of the creative sector is vulnerable to any recession that dries consumer spending. Too many parts of the new policy are not joined up. Too much canoodling is going on with 200 big companies that amount to half the creative economy, too little on the grass roots.

At the heart of Brown’s cultural revolution lies a control fault. Burnham has reiterated his faith in arm’s length arts funding, but too many policy directives will turn the arts hostile and there is a residue of bad feeling ready to rise from recent Arts Council cuts and the proposed slash in Public Lending Right (which is being contested in a Downing Street petition).

These, however, are small clouds in a sky that has cleared in Brown’s first months to give a brighter outlook for the arts than we have seen in two decades. The British Museum has announced record attendances, the Royal Festival Hall is packed and there is talent coming through at every level. This could be the start of something big.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

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



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