John Bull shows his cultural pedigree

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Can this really be us? The thick man of Europe, les rosbifs, philistine, no-taste, no-style Brits? Suddenly we are the arts centre of the universe. How on earth did it happen? No one quite knows and no one is as surprised as we are. The arty-farty French are nowhere. New York art is knocked off its perch. We are IT in fashion, design, music, painting and even food - good grief, yes, FOOD!

In the next two or three years more arts venues, galleries, museums, concert halls, theatres, arts of all kinds will spring upon an unsuspecting public than ever the Victorians created in their heyday. It certainly outdoes the last Labour arts resurgence of the Sixties under Jenny Lee. This is not so much a renaissance as a naissance of a whole new national identity. How will we redefine ourselves now? For there was never really a public debate about it, it was never quite intended. Planted accidentally in the cultural winter of John Major's land of cricket, warm beer and heritage, it is Tony Blair's country that will enjoy its fruit.

No one expected the Lottery to produce such abundance, so when a proportion of it went into the arts, nothing much was planned beyond an enhancement of diminishing arts budgets. Instead we shall see in the millennium with an artistic cornucopia. Just look at this list from around the country: Milton Keynes Arts Complex (pounds 19.6 m), Salford's Lowry Centre (pounds 41.1m), Gateshead Baltic Flour Mills (pounds 33.4 m), Walsall museum and art gallery (pounds 15.7 m), Stoke-on-Trent concert hall and theatre (pounds 14.8m), Hackney arts centre (pounds 9.8m), Sheffield National Centre for Popular Music (pounds 9.5m). And on and on it goes, Manchester, Cambridge, Birmingham, Stockton-on-Tees, Wolverhampton, Malvern ... All that and a great deal more is only a sample of the arts, film, heritage, science, environmental and community projects just from the first phases of the Lottery. At the same time, new bookshops are bursting out all over the place, with readings, literary events and blossoming literary and music festivals.

Great national arts institutions in London will dazzle us in their born- again glory. When the new British Library opens shortly, it will confound its critics, the painful years of over-spend and bungles will be forgotten and the vast bleak red-brick piazza, now hidden from view, will become a seething souk of second-hand book stalls and performance artists - a new, pleasurable public space. Inside, too, are public spaces for theatre, film and lectures. The great glass tower running up the middle, displaying the King's Library of ancient books, will be a visual as well as a bibliographical wonder. The new reading rooms will offer quiet splendour for many, with comfortable benches, laptop plugs and modem ports.

The new Richard Rogers South Bank arts complex will transform that barren waste of stained grey concrete into a riverside glory. The Bankside Tate will give real status to modern art. The angst about the cost of the Millennium Dome will all be forgotten and forgiven, as The Independent's poll last week suggests wide public enthusiasm for it. A new temple to dance is being built on the old Sadler's Wells site. The astounding Libeskind "spiral" extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum - if and when it gets funding - will delight some, shock others, with its jumble of tilting boxes upsetting the stately dullness of South Kensington. Reopened, the Royal Opera House will continue to cause ructions: a few cheaper seats, no doubt snapped up by eager existing opera-goers, will be no sop to the angry. (There is a good argument for increasing ticket prices until the pips squeak for all those bored executives entertaining equally bored guests.) But frequent mass screenings in the Covent Garden piazza will help.

At first, in line with promises not to substitute Lottery money for central government funding, all the arts money has been spent on new buildings and renovations rather than core funding for companies. So hard-pressed theatres and others still fear great empty temples to the arts, with no money to put anything on inside them. The new government is going to make Lottery spending rules more flexible - but with deep arts budget cuts, it would be dangerous to rely on this source for core funding unless the Treasury agrees to a stand-still-plus-inflation ring-fenced budget, of the kind it always opposes. For the irony is that while new arts venues open, others are closing or near closure for lack of funds; theatres in Farnham, Leatherhead and Guildford have been lost already. (Though couldn't those super-rich communities have put their hands in their pockets had they really wanted to keep them?)

Are we ready for all this art? Probably not. Money may be abundant for these great new arts centres, but what of time? Leisure time is in short supply, so who will people these great emporia? Many of us will be pleased they are there, glad to read about them, glad they are enlivening our cities and neighbourhoods, but we will probably attend them, as ever, far less than we intend and less than people have been telling the market researchers they are likely to. Some arts administrators and culture ministers, totting up the extravagant claims for new audiences and arts consumers each of these projects has built into its business plans, are beginning to realise quite how unrealistic they may be in aggregate. Regional theatre audiences are already in steep decline amid some suggestion that the young don't much like theatre. Now there will be more places to go, things to see, delightful places to eat out - but less time to do it all in. (And what of the 200 new television channels?) One worried arts supremo said that he reckoned that the arts venues together were estimating some 20 million new visitors. "Fantasy figures," he said, super-serving a still relatively small elite and spreading it thinner. Although we have by no means reached saturation of potential existing audiences, especially in places where there's little to do now, where are these vast numbers of new arts consumers to come from?

All this has happened so fast, in such an unplanned way, that there has been no time to grow new audiences. That is partly why the Culture Ministry has diverted pounds 1bn of the Wednesday Lottery money towards arts projects in schools and after-school clubs, trying to inject a love of arts into the next generation by giving them a taste for doing it themselves. After all, the university courses that boom are in the arts and media: growing tranches of the young want to do "something in the arts". As Tony Blair said last week at his star-studded party for the art world, this is our one really successful and fast-growing business, our big earner in exports and tourism. (Isn't it time people stopped moaning about the lack of science graduates, if the arts are now our thing?)

Will all this art do us good? How will we measure the social benefits? For the time being we can only hope more new arts consumers will be drawn in by the fun of it all, from small participatory community projects to the grands projets we always complained our government eschewed. Now we've got them, how do we turn ourselves into a nation of arts-lovers? Whatever the doubts, for the moment, just watch in wonder as all this unfolds before our eyes. Ready or not, here it comes.