UK General Election | ‘End the culture of culture washing’: art world figures express hopes and fears for the forthcoming vote

With a General Election looming in the UK on 4 July, the art and culture sector will be closely watching to see how the main political parties in the UK will address a wide range of issues, from the role of art in the school curriculum to maintaining free entry at national museums. We asked a range of art world figures to respond to three key questions.

Charles Saumarez Smith, the former secretary and chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts

TAN: Why is the General Election important for the UK culture sector?

It’s hard to see the past 14 years of Conservative government as anything other than depressing for the arts. We have seen the reduction in art teaching in schools; the loss of funding for local museums; Brexit has been bad for the art market. But assuming that Labour wins the election, they will not find any of these at all straightforward to reverse because of the state of the public finances. A change in attitude would be beneficial, particularly recognising the importance of art and creativity, especially in schools.

Do you know yet which party you’ll support? Why?

My local constituency is Bethnal Green and Bow and I respect Rushanara Ali, our local MP, so I will probably vote for her.

What do you hope to see in the various party manifestos regarding the arts?

One small thing would be depoliticisation of, and less interference in, museum trustee appointments. I think museums are better if they are, as far as possible, self-governing. Then, some level of commitment to the development of art (and music) teaching at all levels in schools. I think it will be better to be realistic about the likely limitations, than promise increases in funding, which may not be possible. Mainly, I think it is worth emphasising the importance of creativity not just to the economy, but to individuals and their well-being.

Frances Morris, the former director of Tate Modern

Why is the general election important for the UK cultural sector?

It feels like a ‘make or break’ moment for culture in the UK.

Do you know which party you’ll support? Why?

Labour (aside from personal politics). Creating Growth, Labour’s Plan for the Arts, Culture and Creative Industries—crucially—acknowledges the intrinsic value of arts, something that has been lost from sight during almost two decades of Conservative government. Given the relentless impoverishment of public infrastructure under the Conservatives, it would be too much to see pledges of increased funding, but I am excited to see the seeding of a transformative vision.

What do you hope to see in the various party manifestos regarding the arts?

From Labour—vocal and visible advocacy for public engagement with the arts at all and every level, from cradle to grave, as a vital component of a good life as well as a good economy. Specifically, Labour should: reinsert arts education into the heart of the curriculum. Arts are as essential as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics); remove party politics from trustee appointments. Politicians and their placement should not be trustees; ensure that all public institutions address the ethics of sponsorship and philanthropy. End the culture of culture-washing!; encourage national collections to devolve and distribute the works in their care ensuring equitable access to national cultural resources; explore rescue measures for endangered local authority institutions; place sustainability at the heart of institutional agendas, specifically; review the Museums and Galleries Act 1992. Most museums still adhere to mission statements crafted over three decades ago. We urgently need to rethink commitments to collecting and conservation and policies of de-accessioning, to accommodate pressing agendas of restitution and sustainability.

Robert Hewison, cultural historian

Why is the general election important for the UK cultural sector?

Back in 2014, in my book Cultural Capital, I described the world introduced by the Conservative-Liberal government as an Age of Lead. Since then, the world has become even more leaden, as public funding for the arts has fallen by more than a third. Some local authorities have simply given up; nationally we know that Arts Council-supported arts organisations in all four jurisdictions are on their knees. To make things worse, Arts Council England appears to have lost its way completely, badly led and poorly managed. There has been a government drive to push the arts out of schools, and a squeeze is on the arts at universities.

The election is an opportunity to get rid of a government that simply does not understand the importance of the arts to society. It seems to want to return us to a 1950s world where only the wealthy 10% can afford to enjoy them. The government cuts the arts out of the national curriculum, but those who go to private schools are lavished with the very best facilities for creativity and performance. These schools know something that the past 14 years of government do not.

Do you know which party you’ll support? Why?

As a member of the Labour party, and of the trade union the Writers’ Guild, I will be voting Labour, and not just because of its intentions for the arts. Labour has already produced a cultural manifesto, Creating Growth, which intelligently understands the role of the arts within the larger creative industries. It demonstrates that Labour sees the arts as a significant contributor, not just to economic, but social wealth.

What do you hope to see in the various party manifestos regarding the arts?

I don’t expect the Labour manifesto, when it appears, to announce a complete purge of Arts Council England, as it should. But it is essential that it commits to the restoration of the arts in schools. At present our creative culture is being strangled at its roots. Fewer and fewer children are introduced to the arts, have an opportunity to be creative, and encouraged to become the artists and audiences of the future. If Britain is to become once more liveable, we need these young people.

Bruce Boucher, the former director of the Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

Why is the general election important for the UK cultural sector?

Now that I am out of the fray, I feel able to offer some thoughts on the coming election as it might impact the arts. The polls seem to predict a victory by Labour, and it is reassuring to note that the current shadow minister for culture, media and sport is a musician. If Thangam Debbonaire holds her brief in a new Labour government, it would mean that we would have a secretary of state invested in culture, and this could lend weight to advocacy for the arts—something not much in evidence in recent years. The outgoing government’s stress upon STEM subjects in education, the downsizing or closing of humanities departments in UK universities, the threatened closure of conservatories, and the financial cuts to regional and national museums through austerity have not augured well for the future of the arts in this country.

What do you hope to see in the various party manifestos regarding the arts?

I would like to see a party manifesto arguing for more investment in the arts, not less, and a shift away from the US model of relying on private funding towards one based upon a European model where the state recognises the importance of culture in all its manifestations and invests in it.

The amounts required for the arts to flourish are small compared to the budgets for defence or the NHS; yet they arguably have as great an impact upon social well-being of society as any other public spending. I recognise the constraints imposed by the current financial climate, but the situation was much more dire in 1946 when the Labour government created the Arts Council with the encouragement of John Maynard Keynes.

Some years before, Keynes had lamented “a self-destructive financial calculation, [which] governs every walk of life. We destroy the beauty of the countryside because the unappropriated splendours of nature have no economic value. We are capable of shutting off the sun and the stars because they do not pay a dividend.” Alas, that same philistine mentality is alive and well today and may dictate the policies of the next government, but one can always hope for better tidings.

Ed Vaizey, former Conservative arts minister

Why is the general election important for the UK cultural sector?

The election is unlikely to make much difference. There is no money, to coin a phrase, and what money there is, for example, via tax credits, has bipartisan support.

Do you know which party you’ll support? Why?

I will support the Conservatives as I am Conservative peer. Mind you, as a peer I am not allowed to vote.

What do you hope to see in the various party manifestos regarding the arts?

I hope to see the arts given due prominence—that matters. I hope for a commitment to long-term funding and tax credits. I want to see politicians from difference areas, for instance health and education, engage with the arts.

Finally, artist Tracey Emin recently told The Guardian:

“I have voted Tory twice in my life. Both times were for [David] Cameron. Before that, I voted Labour all my life. Since then, I’ve voted for the Animal Welfare party. This time round, I’m going Labour.”