Podium; We must listen to Ian McKellen

From a speech by the Chairman of the Arts Council to the Royal Society of Arts
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The Independent Culture
THERE IS a renewed debate here in Britain which suggests that the challenge of reaching out beyond traditional audiences is not simply an American phenomenon. Whether you agree with his analysis or not, we must take seriously Sir Ian McKellen's recent warnings that, in parts of the arts establishment, access - for whatever reason - is still restricted to the elite.

Too often the arts have taken a patronising attitude to audiences. Too often artists and performers have continued to ply their trade to the same white middle class audiences. In the back of their minds lurks the vague hope that one day enlightenment might descend semi-miraculously upon the rest, that the masses might one day get wise to their brilliance. Ian McKellen's example in quitting London for Leeds may be a strong sign that this attitude just won't do any longer.

If we believe that experience of the arts can inspire, can lift the spirit, can add a third dimension to our lives, surely it is nothing less than our duty to go out and seek to spread what can be a life-transforming experience.

Make no mistake - the new audiences are out there clamouring to get in. One of our Arts Council members, the young concert pianist Joanna MacGregor, talks of her reaction recently when she played John Cage pieces to an audience unused to the genteel disciplines of the concert hall. They clapped between movements. They cheered and they shouted. Was Joanna appalled? "No. I wish all audiences were like that," she said.

In our process of change at the Arts Council of England, we recognise that there is a vitality and a freshness out there, a willingness among artists and audiences to take risks and be challenged. It is not our task to impose a new order. It is our task to respond to a new order.

And the new Arts Council will place its emphasis squarely on creating new audiences. The New Audiences programme - which we launched last month - was an initial attempt to bring into the fold between 3 million and 5 million people who would not normally think of attending an arts event.

Some of the 100 schemes are relatively simple. In Sheffield, for example, theatres will be looking at the degree to which ticket prices are an obstacle and seeking to break down the barriers with a range of reductions. Premiership Audiences is a cross art-form project which targets new audiences through football matches. ArtTaxis will take disabled and other people from rural areas to arts events, removing an obvious barrier.

However, that pounds 5 million programme is just the beginning. Widening access to the arts and acting imaginatively to bring in and keep new audiences will be right at the core of everything we do at the Arts Council.

There is an issue here, too, about participation and the need to bring more people into active roles within the arts. To be in an audience can be exhilarating, but often it is the taking part - even if not formally as an actor or musician - that can lift many people to a still higher plane.

But how do we make sure that the pursuit of new and wider audiences, of greater participation in the arts, is not just a fad that we run with for a couple of years and then forget? We do it by making education another prerequisite of public funding. That way we build into our youngsters an expectation of access to and participation in the arts.

But it need not simply be altruism that drives us to share a love of the arts. It's about survival too. With ever-increasing recreational options - youngsters can choose on any given night between opera, theatre, the multiplex, live football or simply an increasing array of TV channels - it is incumbent upon us actively to seek out new audiences.

At the same time as we redefine our preconceptions of the audience, perhaps it is also time for us to review our tendency to see the arts as somehow segregated from the real world. I would like to conclude with a plea: let us not be sidetracked by the bogus debates. It is not popular art vs high art. It is not art as economic motor vs art as self-expression. The arts are none and all of these things.

Let us instead be confident about our arts and our artists and recognise that, at this moment, we have a unique opportunity to clear away the undergrowth and to create a landscape in which they can flourish.

Gershwin once said: "True music must repeat the thought and aspirations of the people and the time. My people are American. My time is today."

We - in Britain now - must repeat the thought and aspirations of our people and our time.