Although arts chiefs uniformly support Labour at election time, their backing this year was half-hearted. After 13 years of Blair-Brown rule, there is appetite for change at the top of the arts and the new regime can deliver several benefits.
1 Mitigate Cuts
The outgoing government had warned arts organisations to expect ten percent budget hits in each of the next three years. Much of that has been put into repertoire planning. What the new government can do is make sure it does not exceed the Labour cuts and, where possible, softens them.
Jeremy Hunt, the new Culture Secretary, had told organisations to expect equal pain. That was the wrong message. Everyone must have prizes (or punishment) was Labour’s message. The new regime must make it clear that it takes clear decisions and rewards merit.
Labour changed Culture Secretary three times in two years, showing how low the arts ranked in its priorities. The new team needs to stay in place for at least three years.
Tony Blair hated opera, classical music and most high arts. Gordon Brown wasn’t interested. Even Cool Britannia was disowned when pop stars trashed a Downing Street reception. A night at the opera by Cameron or Clegg would send a strong signal of support.
5 Abolish bureacracy
The Blair-Brown years will be remembered as a time when arts company chiefs spent more time filling in forms than attending rehearsals. Most had to do with activating Labour policy on education, social integration and equality. Orchestras were asked to report how many Afro-Asian immigrants attended their concerts. Amazon forests were felled to fuel Labour’s paper trail. The new government should let the arts focus on the arts and leave social policy to the political wonks.
6 Restore freedom
Under Labour the arts were yoked to government policy. A Culture Department official, Alan Davey, was sent to run the Arts Council, whose chairmen were Labour donors or supporters. The Council is discredited and should be devolved and scrapped. But first it must be depoliticised. A change of faces at the top will be necessary, and well received.
The coming years are going to be hard going for British arts, but loosening central controls – abandoning control freak machinery – would create a new modus vivendi that allows the arts to flourish and government to appear enlightened. It can be done.