Arts Council chief tackles 'political prejudice'

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The Independent Online

Politicians are still prejudiced against seeing the arts as a vote-winner despite strong evidence to the contrary, the head of Arts Council England will claim tonight.

Speaking at a lecture to opinion-formers, Peter Hewitt, the council's chief executive, will explain his puzzlement at "what feels like a long-standing political prejudice - an assumption that the arts are somehow vote-losers, or certainly not vote-winners".

He will stress that he knows of no instances where a direct association with an arts event or initiative has damaged a politician's electoral chances.

"Even the highly controversial Angel of the North, which at its inception was used for overt party political purposes in local elections, soon had Alan Shearer's shirt draped over it. So surely art should now be seen as a potential vote-winner?" he will say.

He will use the lecture, organised by the Smith Institute think-tank, to announce that the Arts Council is to galvanise popular support with the biggest public discussion on the value of the arts in its 60-year history.

It is hoped the inquiry will encourage people to lobby MPs over the need for culture to be part of the "core script" of government.

Mr Hewitt said yesterday: "The route to government is through a broader public appreciation ... so people are telling government that this is important to them and to their lives."

A recent survey showed high levels of attendances and participation in the arts involving three quarters of adults in England. But neither the public nor politicians have understood how big a role the arts plays in national life, whether in cultivating a sense of well-being or in generating revenue, Mr Hewitt said.

The creative industries are growing twice as fast as the overall economy, and annual exports of cultural goods are worth £11.6bn, more than both China and the United States.

Mr Hewitt will tell the arts world it must work harder to show the Government how subsidised culture fuels economic prosperity. "Our subsidised theatres feed the West End. Our orchestras feed the music industry ... If you want relevance, this is relevance writ large," he will say. The problem is that these connections are invisible to many members of the public and to much of government.

As negotiations get under way over the next spending round, which will be difficult, Mr Hewitt will heap praise upon the Government for the support it has given the arts since 1997.

Arts Council England has enjoyed a 64 per cent real-terms increase in funding since 1997. The investment has produced a "golden age" where the arts are more vibrant than at any time since the Arts Council was created 60 years ago.

But that success needs to be built on. At a meeting with the arts in 1998, the Prime Minister said: "We must write arts into our core script." But Mr Hewitt believes few people would say that had yet happened.

His own job was "to contribute to a process where the arts are an appreciated and embedded part of everyday life and therefore fully recognised by the Government as an unquestionable core responsibility for the long-term". "So what might culture as core script within government look like? It would be where the Prime Minister and other senior cabinet ministers referred with ease to the contribution culture can make in major speeches and statements. Where occasionally speeches would be made by them on culture itself. Where culture would be referred to naturally in the same breath as education, health, trade and diplomacy... In short, where culture becomes part of the fabric of everyday political life."

The public consultation this autumn would not be "a ballot of public opinion", he added.

"It's not finding out what the public wants and then slavishly making that happen. But we will need to think very seriously about what they say."