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Fifty Years of Arts Policy: What Have We Learned?

25/02/2015 17:22 | Updated 27 April 2015

For anyone with an interest in the state of the arts, February 2015 is a significant anniversary: 50 years since the publication of Jennie Lee's A Policy for the Arts - The First Steps. This 1965 White Paper represented a first in government approaches to this corner of policy-making and marked a turning point in the social history of the arts.

Jennie Lee was appointed Minister for the Arts by Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1964 - the first ever appointment of its kind in the UK. Initially, the post was located within the Ministry of Public Works, but before long it was transferred to the Department of Education and Science. It would be almost 30 years before John Major created a cabinet position with responsibility for culture, when he established the Department for National Heritage and appointed David Mellor to a role Mellor subsequently dubbed 'Minister for Fun'.

Lee's appointment came four years after the death of her husband, Aneurin Bevan. Their combined impact on the nation we know now was considerable: between the two of them, they gave us not only the first ever Arts Policy, but also the National Health Service and the Open University.

Once appointed, Lee got straight to work: the White Paper, published just one year into her role, set an agenda that placed education and outreach at the heart of arts policy and instigated a process of building (and rebuilding) that would rejuvenate concert halls, galleries and theatres around the country. The core of the White Paper, in practical terms, was this commitment to build a new infrastructure for the arts, pledging government money through the 'Housing the Arts' scheme, a fund that remained in place for decades.

The mid-60s were a period of optimism, progress and technological revolution. Increasing automation was giving people more leisure time and a new generation was challenging the status quo and blurring the lines between highbrow and lowbrow arts. The building of the New Towns was a visible indication of this changing world, and Lee's belief was that these new towns needed culture, too. The philosophy was clear: 'In any civilized community the arts and associated amenities, serious or comic, light or demanding, must occupy a central place.'

Lee's view on the arts was nothing short of radical. Her desire to open up the (at the time) stuffy world of the arts for the benefit of everyone infuses the White Paper - the enjoyment of the arts, she says, should not be 'remote from everyday life'. She laments the fact that some museums, art galleries and concert halls retained 'a cheerless unwelcoming air that alienates all but the specialist and the dedicated' and suggests the innovative idea of opening galleries outside normal office hours so that workers and school pupils might enjoy them, too.

The paper's influence is still felt today. Earlier this year, for Culture at King's College London, James Doeser undertook a review of arts policy designed to engage young people. His research made clear that the roots of every strategy, initiative or funding scheme over the half century that followed could be traced back to Lee. Her White Paper also enshrined the idea of the arms-length principle, still in place today. The document opens with the statement 'No-one would wish state patronage to dictate taste or in any way restrict the liberty of even the most unorthodox and experimental of artists'.

The world has moved on but the challenges Lee was attempting to address persist today: the regions are under-served, the school curriculum is disconnected from the arts, emerging talent requires support, there is a need for better co-ordination of resources, the best must be made more widely available. 'Too many working people have been conditioned by their education and environment to consider the best in music, painting, sculpture and literature outside their reach', wrote Lee in 1965. Fifty years later, the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value reported that 'high socio-economic background, university-level education and a professional occupation are still the most reliable predictors of high levels of engagement and participation in a wide range of cultural activities'. Lee warned that 'the exclusion of so many for so long from the best of our cultural heritage can become as damaging to the privileged minority as to the under-privileged majority'. The Warwick Commission had the same message, that 'the barriers and inequalities that prevent access to a rich cultural education and the opportunity to live a creative life are bad for business and bad for society'.

Of course, the White Paper did not address challenges and opportunities Lee could not have foreseen: digital, copyright and IP, diversity or devolution, for example. She's spot on when she says that 'if the eager and gifted are to feel as much at home in the north and west as in and near London, each region will require high points of artistic excellence', but in other ways, history has proved her wrong. Manchester's International Festival alone refutes her assertion that 'no provincial centre can hope to rival London's art treasures', and while she identified art's potential to 'increase the quality of contemporary life', there is no mention in the paper of the impact research has since revealed on issues like regeneration, health, well-being, social mobility and the economy.

We've come a long way since Jennie Lee's First Steps, but it's clear there is still some way to go. I'm optimistic: while I'm not naïve enough to think it's top of their agenda, I don't believe, as some commentators wrote in response to the Warwick publication, that 'politicians just don't care about culture'. Ministers are increasingly interested to understand the growing body of evidence about the impact of arts and culture across a range of government agendas. And I'm inspired by the appetite among artists and cultural organisations to work together to find new approaches and solutions, as evidenced by the remarkable growth of the What Next? movement and the establishment of the Creative Industries Federation to provide a single, unified voice for a single, joined-up sector.

After 7 May, when the election results are in, my hope is that the incoming government seizes this moment to re-imagine cultural policy for the 21st century, taking into account that growing body of evidence and addressing the challenges and opportunities of Britain today. As we celebrate this anniversary and the 1965 White Paper's enduring legacy, all the indicators are that now is the time to take the next steps. Just one question nags: where in today's political landscape is the Jennie Lee to take the lead?