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The View From the Wings, as the Arts and Culture Sector Awaits its Moment in the Spotlight

14/08/2015 17:45 | Updated 14 August 2016

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To mark 100 days of the first Conservative government in nearly 20 years, HuffPost UK is running 100 Days of Dave, a special series of blog posts from grassroots campaigners to government ministers, single parents to first-year students, reflecting on what's worked and what hasn't, whilst looking for solutions to the problems we still face.

Just as the impact of culture can be difficult to measure in the short term, it's hard to assess the impact of this government on arts and culture over its first 100 days. At the moment, the biggest show in town is the forthcoming Spending Review. Even before the election, the sector was braced for more cuts - whoever got in - and last week, Arts Professional reported that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) had been instructed to model cuts of 25% and 40%.

As things stand, core national funding for arts and culture has already reduced by over £100million (more than a third) since 2009. On top of that, Local Authorities - historically a significant funder of arts and culture outside London - have seen 40% cuts. Local Government Association modeling predicts funding for non-statutory services (like culture) will be down by 66% by the end of the decade.

In 2010, Jeremy Hunt (then secretary of state at DCMS) promised to deal with cuts to his department by 'paring administrative costs to the bone'. Five years on, there are no fleshy bits left. It's basic infrastructure and front line activity that is likely to go. Alistair Smith in The Stage puts this in context by illustrating three possible routes Arts Council England might take: stop funding some 580 organisations to preserve the largest 50; protect the most vulnerable by cutting loose the 27 highest-funded; or redirect Lottery money to fill the gap. This last - perhaps only - route would abandon the additionality principle established when the Lottery was founded, that 'government does not intend that money from the Lottery should substitute for that provided in other ways'.

At least the department is led by a secretary of state (John Whittingdale) and a minister (Ed Vaizey) who know - and care - about the arts. Whittingdale chaired the Select Committee on Culture for a decade and is known to enjoy film and music (especially heavy metal). Vaizey occupied the same role throughout the last Parliament and his re-appointment was widely welcomed. They have each been out and about, in person and on social media. Vaizey has spoken on digital priorities and continues to champion the roll out of broadband. Whittingdale recently helped launch a Five Point Plan on tourism and chairs an inter-ministerial group bringing six government departments together to ensure delivery. The Plan opens with glossy images of Chatsworth House and the British Museum, which makes it all the more strange that while it can stretch across six government departments, it fails to connect with divisions in Whittingdale's own domain. There is no mention of heritage and culture, even though 40% of tourists cite culture as the reason for their visit to the UK (and spend at least £856million a year, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research).

Whittingdale has yet to make a big speech on the arts, but we know our big moment is coming: a new White Paper on the arts, 50 years after the first (and only) arts policy this country has ever seen. Jennie Lee's 1965 The First Steps articulated a vision for post-war Britain in which the arts would occupy a 'central place' in any 'civilised community'. It was radical thinking, but it couldn't address challenges and opportunities she could not have foreseen: digital, big data, devolution and diversity.

A policy that takes into account the way we live now - and what we know about what works - is long overdue. Vaizey has promised it will focus on cross-government working, recognizing the growing body of evidence of culture's impact in other departments' agendas: health, education and place-making.

The debate about art in the National Curriculum looks set to rumble on. Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education, set out her vision for creative education in July, robustly defending the last government's record and its £460m investment in cultural education initiatives. But her claim that there has been no downward trend in the take up of arts subjects since 2010 is challenged by sector bodies like the Cultural Learning Alliance, whose own analysis shows a 13% decline overall.

There may have been no big moment for the arts in the first 100 days, but the promised review of the BBC is already underway. With Charter renewal on the horizon, much of the discourse is Westminster-centric, focused on news, politics and impartiality. But the impact of any changes to the BBC could be significant for the creative sector. The BBC is a bigger investor in arts, culture and the creative industries than DCMS or Arts Council England. It is the UK's biggest commissioner of new music, one of the main commissioners of new writing and it's the broadcast partner of hundreds of arts organisations up and down the country. It supports over 70 festivals each year and BBC Introducing has helped launch the careers of artists like George Ezra, Laura Mvula and more. Mark Pemberton (Association of British Orchestras) has said 'damage to the BBC would be disastrous to the orchestral sector'.

Earlier this year, the report of the Warwick Commission on Cultural Value described the UK's cultural and creative sector as 'an ecosystem of interlocking parts that feed and depend on each other, unlocking the potential of the flow of talent, ideas and investment'. The BBC is a vital part of that ecosystem. In the debate about its future, we need to ensure that its integral role within the nation's cultural and creative life is fully understood.

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