Christopher Frayling: Why should the arts be the first to suffer when money is tight?

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The Independent Online

In recent years, the contemporary visual arts have enjoyed not just a sustained period of productive activity, but a much higher profile than ever before.

In recent years, the contemporary visual arts have enjoyed not just a sustained period of productive activity, but a much higher profile than ever before.

When I took over the role of chair of the Arts Council just over a year ago, I said I wanted us to be an incubator for new ideas, a campaigning organisation, a development agency for the arts and its economy; not just a funding body.

Since 2001, the percentage of adults who believe that arts and cultural projects should receive public funding has increased from an impressive 74 per cent to an even more impressive 79 per cent - amazingly, that's almost the same degree of support for a public health service and education. It confirms there is a democratic will to fund cultural institutions.

This shift in the nation's appetite for the arts and culture - and the support for public funding - is linkedto the unprecedented investment in the arts from the National Lottery and the Treasury in recent years, and to the increasing accessibility of what's on offer. We know the importance and necessity of a thriving arts sector to the health of the nation; to the quality and effectiveness of its education; to its civic and communal life; and to the quality of individual experience and personal lives. Yet the arts continue to hold an uncomfortable place in this country's wider political culture.

The achievements of our sporting heroes are more than matched by the achievements of our playwrights, actors, dancers and musicians. There is strong political and increasing public support for the 2012 Olympic bid, and this is a great time to show that England leads the field in both sport and the arts.

Public subsidy to the arts in this country still lags behind our European counterparts by a very wide margin. The arts often remain an afterthought in government policy - and the arts are often the first to suffer when money is tight. To make matters worse, governments can also interfere in the arts. Lately, I have sensed the distance between the Arts Council and the Government is narrowing.

The Government clearly thought we were being ungrateful after the big uplifts to arts in previous spending rounds. We felt betrayed that the Government had decided not to continue with its investment of new money - despite all the success. A strange decision, since the upward curve of the arts was one of country's good news stories. It was up to then an uncompromised record - so why start compromising now?

Sir Christopher Frayling is Rector of the Royal College of Art, and chair of Arts Council England

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