What is the government’s new plan for the future of the arts?

A forthcoming White Paper aims to set out the most far-reaching strategy for 50 years

by Robert Hewison  |  10.02.2016
What is the government’s new plan for the future of the arts?
Bob and Roberta Smith is strongly opposed to funding cuts to the arts. ©Paul Tucker all rights reserved
It is more than 50 years since a British government announced its intention to make the UK “a gayer and more cultivated country”. That quotation comes from A Policy for the Arts: the First Steps, Britain’s first White Paper on cultural policy, published by the first minister for the arts, Labour’s Jennie Lee, in 1965.

Until this year it was the only comprehensive statement of a government’s attitude to the arts and heritage. Ed Vaizey, the minister of state for culture and the digital economy, is putting that to rights. Following a consultation launched in September 2015, he and a small team of officials at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) are working on “a new, far-reaching cultural strategy”, for publication this spring.

London arts students protesting in March last year in response to the cuts. Photo by Geovien So/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Putting the record straight

Vaizey, who has just passed Jennie Lee’s record as the longest serving arts minister, admits to being strongly influenced by his predecessor’s work: “I would like it to be a tribute to Jennie Lee,” he says. His original idea had been to publish the policy proposal last year on the 50th anniversary of the first White Paper but that draft ran into difficulties in the dying months of the previous Coalition government.

Now, with the Conservatives fully in charge, there is keenness to get the document out, not least in order to put straight the record of the past five years. Vaizey’s confidence has been buoyed by the relative leniency shown to the arts and heritage in the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s George Osborne’s autumn statement: “George’s spending review may go down in the annals of history.”

History tells us, however, that in 1965 Labour’s White Paper heralded a substantial increase in funding for the arts, only topped by New Labour’s increases after 1998. A Policy for the Arts boasted of a 30% increase in arts spending in 1965. Since 2010 there has been an almost 50% cut to the budget of the DCMS. In 1965 Labour committed capital funds to build a national infrastructure for the arts. Thanks to the National Lottery (introduced by the Conservatives in 1993 but substantially reformed by New Labour) that infrastructure is in place, although Vaizey acknowledges there may be questions about its sustainability.

Vaizey told The Art Newspaper that some of Jennie Lee’s themes “do resonate 50 years later”. There is the question of an imbalance between London and the regions, and the need to make the arts and heritage more available to more people. But when I point to Lee’s emphasis on education as the gateway to the arts, and contrast it with the current sidelining of arts subjects in the national curriculum, Vaizey is unmoved: “I know the arts would like me to throw up my hands in horror, but I won’t.”

No new money

He is also unmoved by the plight of local authorities, where austerity is doing real damage to the sector, arguing that choices have to be made, and “great councils do pursue and promote culture”, just as good schools promote the arts. Several times he says the issue is not money, but how organisations reach out to the unengaged. It does seem, however, that free admission to national museums will remain, and we can expect more incentives through tax relief: “George loves a tax credit.”

We know that the new White Paper’s themes will be “place-making”—which Vaizey explains as “a policy-wonky way of trying to join up the dots between government departments” in order to understand the benefits of culture in the round—along with access and engagement, new ways of funding the arts, and cultural diplomacy. Broadcasting and the creative industries will be excluded.

Normally, a White Paper is the prelude to legislation, but probably not in this case. Vaizey promises a challenge to government and a challenge to the arts and heritage. “I want it to be a big statement: arts and heritage matter. I am fed up with the arts being an afterthought.”

What the art world would like to see in the white paper

Nicholas Serota, director, Tate
The White Paper should provide more than just a moment in the limelight: it should put the arts, culture and creativity centre-stage. They have relevance to the whole of society, and policy across departments should reflect this in ways that have a real effect in all classrooms and all regions.

In November, the chancellor gave a lead in recognising the value of the arts and culture to the nation, but other ministers must follow. Over the past six years, many arts venues and museums have suffered deep cuts in local authority funding and we now need an independent review of state funding for the arts in the regions. The White Paper is the opportunity both to put this in place and to secure closer links between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and other key departments such as the Department for Education, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) so the value of the arts can be better realised. Could we yet see a minister for developing local culture in the DCLG?

Tim Marlow, artistic director, Royal Academy
The notion that we need a White Paper could be seen as an indictment of the attitude of successive governments to the arts—but let’s try to be positive and say that it should signal the beginning of a fundamental shift in political values.

Rather than constantly being asked to justify their existence (and funding) the arts should be seen as an integral part of what we do and who we are. So how about looking again at the National Curriculum and reassessing the role the arts could and should play in primary and, in particular, secondary education? 

If our political masters really do want to harness the nation’s creative potential across all facets of our lives then it is essential that they start with arts education.

Prem Sahib, artist
Last year I was invited to join a panel  discussion about whether artists could still afford to live in London. It made me question what was being done at government level to address the situation regarding artist studios and rapidly increasing rents.

I would like to see the White Paper present diverse solutions for what is a diverse community of practitioners. We need to see rent caps and legislation that allows for more sustainable working conditions, as well as more progressive initiatives that take their cue from current changes in policy, such as the role local authorities now play in setting business rates. These types of interventions will help artists to remain in areas that are being heavily developed and present more realistic opportunities to operate as small businesses.

I hope that the role artists play in adding value to an area is finally reflected in policy making. It seems that artists are mythologised in ways that assume we should be satisfied with short rents, or taking over buildings temporarily before having to relocate once an area has been gentrified. I don’t believe these conditions are conducive to a productive or sustainable set-up, nor would they be considered acceptable in any other industry.

Bob and Roberta Smith, artists
Education and freedom of expression should be central to the White Paper on the arts. When the government places the arts in the second division of subjects in schools, children understand that it thinks culture is not worth studying. Michael Gove’s proposals for an English baccalaureate had a corrosive effect in all sectors of education. The arts are being pushed out of primary education. Vital foundation courses are closing, leading to fewer good candidates at degree level. There is a crisis in postgraduate education because arts students’ appetite for debt is exceeded.

The White Paper must make the case for a new settlement for the teaching of arts subjects at all levels. In this country we enjoy a degree of freedom of expression which is increasingly rare in the world. Repressive regimes crush the arts because shooting the poet and blowing up the ancient city spreads fear in populations. I can speak out for my fellow artists because of Britain’s adoption of an international agenda on human rights through the Human Rights Act. The White Paper should place the arts at the centre of democratic life and make clear that freedom of expression begins with pencils and blank sheets of paper.

Tiffany Jenkins, cultural commentator
The best thing about the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government, and the Conservative government thus far, is that they avoided the frenetic publication of policies and statements on culture that characterised the last Labour government—sometimes less is better than more. That said, in the White Paper it would be nice to see a robust articulation of why culture matters, without jargon or buzzwords, rather than the spurious but oft-repeated arguments that it stimulates economic growth and fosters social inclusion, arguments that neglect to make the case for culture on its own terms. But I doubt we’ll get that. 

The first two of the four priorities, “places”, “people”, “funding” and “cultural diplomacy” suggest that we will see the entrenchment of the social inclusion agenda. The funding priority will probably mean that the arts sector is encouraged to develop new funding streams, which is necessary given decreasing funds, but there is no silver bullet. “Cultural diplomacy” is a slippery term that either states the obvious—culture can operate as soft power—or veers into politicisation of the arts which, as with the Great Britain campaign, can be tacky as well as interventionist. It may be that no new policy is the best policy we can hope for.

Ralph Rugoff, director, Hayward Gallery
I would love to see an end, from government and galleries alike, to talk about the “creative industries”, as I think that language skews our sense of where the real social value of the arts is to be found. It is like referring to religions and charities as “ethical industries”.

The argument that culture should be funded because it is good value on account of its role in the tourist industry has been overstated; the real value of the arts, especially in education, is that they enhance our imaginative capacities, our awareness of other perspectives and values, and help us to see new connections between things—to think creatively, in other words. 

Crucially, the arts also help people to feel that they belong: they provide us with new stories and tools for relating to and understanding one another. There is no empathy without imagination, and art is a key means for developing both those abilities, which is just one reason why the government needs to reverse its recent steps and to reinstate the arts as a core component of the educational curriculum. Given that a successful future economy will require a population of innovators and creative thinkers, the government should feel confident that this is the only truly practical move to make.

Nicholas Cullinan, director, National Portrait Gallery
The first White Paper on the arts for 50 years and a new vision and strategy for the sector is to be welcomed. The paper’s focus on culture’s role in place-making, access and inclusion, cultural diplomacy and creating and encouraging new financial freedoms and resilience for institutions, all chime with core elements of the National Portrait Gallery’s strategy for the future. We are encouraged that the government has recognised in the recent spending review the vital contribution of museums and galleries to our society and economy and welcome the recent increased operational and financial freedoms. However, it would be good to know in practice how the government will support cultural organisations moving forward, especially in a tough economic climate, and how it will support us to grow and develop our work nationally and internationally.

A key challenge will be to find more sustainable funding models so the threat of future funding cuts does not damage the ability for long-term planning and major projects. With our programme of national partnership and our national remit there are concerns about the effect of significant local government cuts on regional arts and museums.

We would also be keen to see a clear strategy on how can we work together with other areas of government, including education, tourism, business, local government, health and the creative industries.

Finally, it will be interesting to see how this paper will address the potential of new ways of engaging and reaching more diverse audiences.

Valeria Napoleone, collector
The situation with artists’ studios has to be addressed, especially in London, where real estate prices have gone crazy. The ongoing migration of artists from London to cities like Berlin and beyond is dismantling London’s creative community. If this continues then all we will be left with is a bunch of affluent people. We need artists for the health of our cultural system.

Also in London, we have a galaxy of small not-for-profit art organisations which struggle to survive. They do amazing work to nurture the artists of the future and they should receive much more  public funding.

The imbalance between London and the regions in terms of the support institutions get from both the public and the private sector also needs to be addressed. It is important to establish a dialogue between the public sphere and private individuals, to pick the brains of entrepreneurs, collectors, patrons, directors of museums, creative and out-of-the-box thinkers for public benefit. It’s not only about the money; it’s about maximising effort and results, about creating synergies through collaborations and partnerships.

Tax breaks are a good way to start seriously engaging with the private sector for the public benefit, to start creating a solid ground for philanthropic giving and a dialogue between public and private for the future of our cultural reality.

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