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Great Art for Everyone: Is There a Point? You Bet!

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I got very cranky the other day at a piece on the BBC 'Today' programme where the presenter and one of his interviewees - who used to be involved in arts sponsorship in this country - were asserting that the arts were elitist, for a minority and, it implied, ever more will be so. The tired old assertion that the Royal Opera House is circled by Bentleys on a nightly basis was wheeled out as a symbol of the Arts in Britain since 1946. The last time I was at the Opera House I was nearly run over by a rickshaw but that's another matter...

What got me really cranky was the way my initial point that our audience segmentation research shows there is a core of potential audiences (around 10%) that you'll never reach as they are determinedly naysayers as far as the arts go, was not balanced by the inclusion of my other point: that 79% of the population in this country experience the arts at least once in a year and how can we make them go more? The piece implied that our mission as an Arts Council, Great art for everyone, wasn't worth bothering with - so why were we continuing to fund opera, ballet, orchestras etc as boring, irrelevant, elitist art forms?

Oh come on...that thinking's so outdated, so tired and so ignorant of the arts up and down this great country of ours. It's so ignorant of how the arts have grown since 1946 with, if not a theatre in every town as Keynes said he wanted, at least theatres, and good work made in theatres, all over the country, available to many people within a short distance. With international art galleries in Nottingham and Middlesbrough, Margate and Wakefield. With strong regional museums in Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, Liverpool and beyond. With new contemporary dance companies all over the nation. With great work going on in small communities led by talented artists. Great work being enjoyed by audiences of around 90 million a year - and that's just the organisations we core fund, leaving aside our many other programmes, like creative people and places, that are bringing art to communities that have little provision and have had historically less engagement.

The reason I'm cranky about what the programme said is that it's based on an attitude that is stuck somewhere in the far end of the last century - and everyone got over it a long time ago. If you look at the history of the Arts Council we went through moments of thinking we were only about the 'high arts' - whatever they are - and not about participation or things that happened in communities up and down the country.

We also had moments where we thought perhaps the reverse was true. In the time of Jennie Lee, the first ever Arts Minister, appointed in 1964, we probably reached an equilibrium for the first time: that we fund the best - from wherever it emerges or is shown - and make it available to the most. No dumbing down, no condescending - we make the best art happen and we make sure as many people as possible can benefit from it. That's what Great Art for Everyone is. That's why I'll shout it from the rooftops.

The trick is not to dumb down but to make sure that whatever barriers there are - attitudinal, educational, economic, whatever - we work to help people over them, producing free events as we did on a spectacular scale this summer, offering ways of allowing people to realise that the arts can be for them, and engendering the attitude 'why not?' instead of the insidious and easy 'why bother?' The Today programme seemed to imply this latter was the rightful attitude for the lower classes to display. No aspiration allowed.

Opera is a great art form. Orchestral Music is a major part of our cultural heritage and one part of interesting, contemporary music. Stockhausen's Mittwoch at Birmingham this summer showed his music to be intelligent, complex and beautiful and his great work to be full of humour, appreciated by a hugely mixed audience who forgot they shouldn't like Stockhausen.

On my part I'll never forget my first orchestral concert, the noise like nothing else, and its effect on me. It made me, steeped in pop music, see what classical music was and could be. I delved and discovered, and it added to the things that gave my life depth. And still does, the effect of orchestral sounds on my psyche and emotions not anything less than the effect of seeing Canadian genius Tony Dekker and his band the Great Lake Swimmers in a small venue in Shepherd's Bush. They are both excellent, life-affirming and life-questioning forms of musical art. Art can be great no matter where it is made or presented. It's about authenticity and integrity of intention and then execution. The polarity between high art and popular art is blurred now for those who really push boundaries.

For me it's a moral thing. Growing up in public housing in the North East of England, it was heavily implied to me that the arts were not for me. When I wanted to study Classics or Greek because I liked the stories and wanted to grip the original languages, the College Principal told my parents that classics was only of relevance if I were to pursue a career dealing in fine art - and I wouldn't be doing that, would I, as I'd be going to work in ICI and so should do a useful subject that would get me a job in a lab.

That's why, for as long as I breathe, I'll fight for the arts to happen, and for them to be available up and down the country to as many people as possible. And I'll fight the lazy and misguided attitude that the arts are inherently elite. We've come a long way since 1946 and we are not about to give that away.