Joan Bakewell: Britain has brilliant arts. So why jeopardise them?

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The Independent Online

Just consider the goodies. This is the weekend of London's annual Open House weekend when, for 48 hours, 600 architecturally significant buildings across the capital open their doors free of charge. Its guide book and map cost modest sums but otherwise it is one of the most successful and fascinating free entertainments around.

There are wonderful times to be had in more traditional ways, too – a Lee Miller exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum; Millais coming to Tate Britain; Matthew Barney at the Serpentine Gallery; China's ancient terracotta warriors at the British Museum; the Complicite theatre company at the Barbican. And the fun isn't in all London. The Turner Prize is going to Liverpool; Birmingham Rep has Rough Crossing, Simon Schama's book about the slave trade adapted by Caryl Phillips; The Lowry in Manchester has a Jimmy McGovern play, King Cotton. These are merely the opening shots in seasons of music and plays that are dazzling in their range and quality. There can scarcely be a family in the land who could not, if they chose, find their way to some free or modestly-priced show, display, happening or event. The country is dense with creative activity and the prospect of much joy and pleasure to be had this autumn. So why is the arts world in a state of trepidation? Why is there a general anxiety backstage about what might be about to knock it for six? Why is everyone who has to deal with advance planning, booking and casting, marketing and management worrying about what is coming their way?

All this worry is because the Government's Comprehensive Spending Review is due to announce its figures in the autumn. As chair of the National Campaign for the Arts, I know only too well that, whenever two or three arts people come together these days, there is fretful speculation about the timing, the date and, most particularly, the money involved in the review.

Over long months, there has been a good deal of shadow-boxing between the Treasury and the formal arts agencies. First, the Treasury warned that everyone should plan for cuts – even, it was hinted, severe cuts. From somewhere, the figure of 10 per cent emerged. Rumbles of distress and fears of major losses to our cultural output were transmitted urgently back to the Treasury. Many companies then began drawing up plans based on a 3 per cent budget cut.

This would be bad enough and involve damage to the current success story, but contingencies had to be made. More recently, the rumour mill has allowed itself a little leeway. Now there is talk that a standstill settlement might be in the offing. Will that include inflation or not? Who knows? Only the Treasury, and they aren't telling just yet. That means there is still time to make the case for funding the arts, and it goes like this: when Labour won in 1997, morale in the arts was low, institutions around the country were in crisis. Almost at once, the new Government responded: Tony Blair had arts honchos round to No. 10 and talked of "writing the arts into the core script". The next three years' settlement gave the arts an extra £290m and in 2000 the Arts Council's grant went up by 78 per cent. Most dramatically, free entrance to museums and galleries transformed attendances. Bliss was it in that dawn. But new dawns grow into bleak day and, when pressures build up from other directions, the modest sums that sustain this great tapestry of cultural riches looks vulnerable. Plus, of course, there is the looming threat of what the Olympics will finally cost.

There is no doubt the quality of life of the entire country has improved. There are performances and art classes in prisons, resident artists in offices, small theatre groups visiting schools. The Government demanded value for money and got it. Companies were required to tick boxes that show how much their work reaches ethnic minorities, handicapped people, failing schools and first-time visitors. With their usual resourcefulness, arts companies came up with results. There has been a surge in black writing and black audiences. Matinees are packed with the elderly taking advantage of cut-price offers. Labour's agenda is being well and truly served. But take away the money that makes this possible – it costs money to reach people beyond the normal buzz of arts gossip – and this frail but valuable support system will be damaged.

Big enterprises and small, faced with cuts, will revert to what is at the core of their work and seek to safeguard that as a priority. Frills – and that will mean the very outreach and educational work the Government is so keen on – might well be the first to go. There is no point in reaching out to new audiences when the quality of the work has been so diluted that they won't enjoy it. Only the best work makes converts: second best can put people off. No one wants to go down that route.

This chimes with something new in the arts climate. It is this: that perhaps all the requirements of box-ticking and its social engineering have gone far enough. They have been effective, certainly, but some arts leaders now feel they are starting to distract from the true focus of the arts, which is, above all, to create work of excellence in all the various performance and exhibition disciplines. It is what we are overwhelmingly good at. Hopes are now that the Treasury won't spoil it for what is virtually the small change of government spending.

joan.bakewell@virgin.net

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