An unprecedented coalition of gallery directors and artists is collaborating on a manifesto to transform the visual arts in Britain.
Arts leaders, bitterly disappointed that the Government has failed to follow through on its early investment in culture, have pledged to force politicians to accept that the public has a right to art. They are hoping that the united front, from a sector that has traditionally been fragmented, will place arguments about cultural entitlement firmly on the agenda for this election, for future spending rounds and beyond.
The group, which includes Sir Nicholas Serota of the Tate, Sandy Nairne of the National Portrait Gallery and Andrew Nairne of Modern Art Oxford has been meeting under the auspices of the Visual Arts and Galleries Association since December, to devise a blueprint to be launched this autumn.
They are being supported by artists such as Jeremy Deller, who won last year's Turner Prize, and Bill Woodrow, whose work graced the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square, with plans to involve designers, film-makers and others in creative industries. Details of the manifesto will be finalised over the summer but the intention is to set clear goals. These are likely to include a call for extended opening hours for galleries to cope with demand, a requirement for children to visit exhibitions and full funding, hitherto not forthcoming, for the "Renaissance scheme" which is designed to tackle the decline in regional galleries.
The broader aim over the next five to 20 years is to place the visual arts - including design, architecture, fashion and film - at the heart of thinking on everything from urban regeneration to the health service.
The impetus has come from a widespread belief that the public's attitude towards art has changed radically - partly prompted by the opening of exciting galleries such as Tate Modern and the New Art Gallery Walsall in 2000.
Yet while the public queues outside the National Gallery opens every morning to see the current Caravaggio exhibition, key government figures are thought to be unconvinced of the importance of culture to people's daily lives.
Despite gratitude towards Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, and her predecessor Chris Smith, for securing increased funding, artists fear the support is not yet deep-rooted amongst other politicians.
Sir Nicholas said: "The important thing is to raise general recognition of the fact that people who live in contemporary society have as much right to access culture as they do to education or to health. It shouldn't be regarded as a frill."
Although the campaign will implicitly call for more funding, it was as much a question of recognition, Sir Nicholas said. What was significant about the surprise £12m for arts in the Budget, he said, was the recognition that the arts were important to the economy and needed to be well-run.
Sandy Nairne said it was "an incredibly good moment" for the visual arts to co-operate because the lottery and some extra funding had transformed the fabric and the programmes of Britain's biggest, and some of its smaller, galleries. What they wanted to do now was capitalise on the opportunities that had opened up.
There was a strong economic argument, he said, because of the importance of the visual arts as the bedrock of Britain's creative industries from advertising to interior design.
But the long-term aim could be much bigger, he said: "We could make a better country. That sounds rather moralistic, but we could make Britain a better-looking country. People joke about Britain's worst towns, but it's a good way to focus on the fact that people do care about their environment and we should care more."
Alice Rawsthorn, director of the Design Museum, said another catalyst for action now was that old-fashioned boundaries between different areas of visual culture had broken down. "The anachronistic snobbery that prevailed in the 1970s about the difference between the fine arts and the applied arts don't apply any more," she said.
And the arts generated real money as well as enriching people's lives, stressed Bill Woodrow. "London is now the centre of the international arts world. It's where everyone wants to be," he said.
But Keith Khan, who designed the opening ceremonies for the Millennium Dome and 2002 Commonwealth Games, hoped the notion of the right to art did not result in dumbing down. Quality should remain a priority, he said.
A MANIFESTO FOR THE ARTS?
Likely goals in the "right to art" manifesto to be presented this autumn:
* Integrated thinking across Government to make the visual arts a positive influence in everything from hospital design to regeneration projects;
* Extended hours for museums and galleries to cope with demand and ease crowding;
* Full funding for the Renaissance programme which was designed to revitalise run-down regional museums;
* Proper resources for schools to teach visual arts;
* Opportunities for children to visit exhibitions and see real art;
* Establishment of schemes to introduce members of the public to artists working in their communities and to allow the public to see artists at work
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
Sandy Nairne, director, National Portrait Gallery
This is not about separating out thinking about the visual arts from thinking about health or education. It's about incorporating it into all of them. Hospitals do now have a performance standard for design.
Alice Rawsthorn, director, Design Museum
Traditionally we've been a literary and dramatic culture, but the intelligent, cultured Briton is now expected to be as visually aware as they are verbally aware so this is the right moment for the visual arts to assert themselves.
Sir Nicholas Serota, director, Tate
We won't succeed if we fight each other for a small piece of cake; we should be looking to improve recognition of the importance of culture to society. It's important that this isn't just a Department for Culture question.
Bill Woodrow, artist whose work included Regardless of History in Trafalgar Square
There's always been this emphasis on the three Rs - it's an old cliché. But there should be four and the last one is art. It's never had that recognition.