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Apr 29 / Simon

Finally arts take centre stage

Simon Tait

The arts are starting to look suspiciously like the Lib Dems. Ignored for years as a pretty adornment to the gaiety of public life, with the days of influence a distant memory, both suddenly seem to have a trump to lay in the political game.

As they did before the last Comprehensive Spending Review, the top people in the arts have got together – just before the election date was announced after which all publicly funded organisations have to go into purdah – to make a case for the arts that stands entirely on accomplishment achieved and an awe inspiring potential. It is up to the politicians now to carry the case, and it is up to the media to prise it out of them.

At bottom the election is about the economy, and what Cultural Capital: A Manifesto for the Future does is place the arts at the centre of that debate. Last year the EU culture commissioner, Jean Figuel of France, said that when the recession is over, “those who have invested in creativity and innovation will find themselves well ahead of the pack”.

The voting public is so sick and tired of politicians that, perhaps until the shock emergence of Nick Clegg as an interesting new feature, many said they intended to stay aloof from the ballot. Instead, they might go to a museum, an art gallery, a concert hall, or a theatre, as record numbers are doing in the West End because the public is not only not fed up with that part of public life, it is voluntarily immersed in it as never before.

The arts consuming public is spending a massive 10% of the GDP; every £1 the Arts Council spends earns £2; our cultural economy is the fastest growing in the world, employing two million people; theatre is worth a staggering £2.6 billion a year. The cultural economy is already a powerhouse, worth £50 billion to the national budget, set to employ more people than the financial sector within the next four years, and described by NESTA as “the key driver for the UK’s recovery from recession”. Note the definite article.

Yet the politicians were steadfastly ignoring all this, until for the first time ever the Labour Party decided to put arts policy into its main election manifesto (the Tory and Lib Dem culture spokesmen had published separate arts manifestos in February, presumably knowing that they could never persuade their leaders to make an issue of the arts). It is pretty thin stuff, but at least it is there. Despite this economic dynamo waiting to be unleashed, the politicians are proposing nothing to support the workers in the sector who are notoriously underpaid, overworked and under trained outside their immediate disciplines.

The Arts Council commissioned Martin Bight’s New Deal of the Mind to report on the obstacles and barriers that young artists are facing. What he has been told is that young creatives don’t want hand-outs, they want a helping hand to make space to work in, they want business and financial advice, they want mentoring from entrepreneurs, and they want recognition from the establishment that being self-employed or freelance – which characterises life in the cultural economy – is actually a valid choice of career.

There is nothing new in harnessing creative power to an ailing economy. Roosevelt did it in the 1930s as part of the New Deal when he sought out artists like Saul Bellow and Mark Rothko who were put to work making their art rather than mending roads, and not only were their places in cultural history assured, they contributed to the nation’s economic recovery and established America’s reputation for promoting ground-breaking art which stretched across the disciplines to theatre and music as well as visual art and writing.

Margaret Thatcher did the same with the Enterprise Allowance Scheme from which arose the likes of Julian Dunkerton of the Superdry fashion label and Alan McGee of Creation Records.

Bright’s report wants an Enterprise Allowance Scheme for the 21st century; simplified self employment regulations and help in setting up as freelancers and small businesses; space to work, rehearse, network and access business advice; and strict control of unpaid internships.

Tonight sees the third televised debate among the leaders, on the economy. If we can’t have a fourth in which the exploitation of cultural potential for the national good is the subject, we should at least have a question asked this evening. The arts have earned it.