Joan Bakewell: Don't let the curtain fall now

The mood has infected the entire nation. In small and significant ways, the arts have crept into people's lives
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The Independent Online

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive! In 1997 a mood of euphoria at New Labour's election victory swept the arts world. Artists, writers, playwrights had settled into a relationship of mutual hatred with Mrs Thatcher whom they lampooned mercilessly for her apparent dismissal and who responded with sharp and deadly contempt. Worse, the abolition of the GLC wrote out of the funding equation the generous art-friendly regime of Ken Livingstone. Her successors fared no better. The funding round limped along. Things were bad and spirits were low.

Arrive, the new dawn! New Labour had always cultivated the arts community. The Arts-for- Labour (A4L) swung into action and many celebrities turned up on the hustings. Many others let it be known how they would be voting. Celebrations were widespread as Tony and Cherie made their triumphal entry at the Royal Festival Hall for the victory party.

The honeymoon was golden. By June '98 leaders of some of our greatest arts institutions were round at Number 10, making the case for the arts to Tony Blair and the then Culture Secretary Chris Smith. The phrase Blair used to sum up the meeting - "we must write the arts into our core script" - was quickly on the grapevine. The promises were coming good. And so it proved. The next three-year settlement gave the arts an extra £290m, and a further spending review in 2000 gave Arts Council England an overall increase of funding of 78 per cent. Regional theatres were put back on their feet and the arts blossomed.

Most spectacular of all was the impact of free admissions to all the countries' national museums. The effect has been dramatic, as any parent shepherding children through weekends and half terms knows. Museums and galleries are crowded with families who once would have stayed away because the cost of entry was too much. Now any individual with half an hour to spare can pop into a gallery and enjoy a brief encounter with art without feeling the need to get their money's worth with a full-scale visit. You pay for special limited-run exhibitions - but the gorgeous abundance of Britain's collections is for everyone to enjoy. And enjoying it they are. Attendances at museums are up 50 per cent since 2001.

The Government, of course, wanted value for money, and has harnessed the arts to its own agenda for communities and cities. Most particularly institutions in receipt of tax payers money have to answer for the size and composition of their audiences. Ethnic minorities and the disadvantaged are to share the spoils. Thus at the National Theatre Nick Hytner's strategy of a sudden and substantial reduction in certain seat prices, as well as daring programme led by Gerry Springer: the Opera, and plays by a new generation of black writers have brought in new audiences and kept the old. The place hums at all hours of the day and night.

The mood has infected the entire country. In small and significant ways the arts have crept into people's lives. Who knows of Tenantspin, a Liverpool scheme that brings the tenants of tower blocks - 77 per cent are over 60 - together with artists to create shows that deal with their own social and political issues. The unsung but significant Y touring company commissions new plays that demonstrate the ethical dilemmas of science and plays them to enthusiastic school audiences. Thus are modest enterprises reaching into lives and making them better.

But like all marriages, once the honeymoon has settled into humdrum daily life, small and insidious adjustments get made. The level of government funding has reached a plateau, and there is now real fear throughout the arts sector that its huge contribution to the economy - some £2bn a year from museums, £2.6bn from theatre - will be taken for granted and the impetus for growth lost.

The prospect of the huge sums going to the costly, world-class plans for the 2012 Olympics worries those who feel their own pockets might be raided. So with the next spending review in its sights, the museum and arts world this week launched its "Case for Culture", in a glossy document crammed with self-justifying facts.

Under Thatcher, every arts institution learnt the hard way how to run well managed, tightly-financed business plans. The case for arts was made throughout the 1980s in economic terms: so much VAT, so much export product, so much tourism. Under New Labour it has been made in social terms: so many ethnic audiences, so many educational outreach programmes. Now, with the Chancellor making rumbling noises about the public sector having to pull in its belt, there is alarm that the baby could be thrown out with the bath water.

People like enjoying themselves. They have grown discriminating in their pleasures and keen their children should benefit from theatre and dance, from painting and self-expression. This is the feel-good factor to which David Cameron refers. In the last nine years, government money has leveraged huge sums from the private sector which is pleased to sponsor exhibitions, dramas, literary festivals, new libraries and galleries. All this is at risk unless the Treasury appreciate the long reach of the arts into all our lives and the valuable difference it makes to the well-being of communities and individuals. The battle cry now is - sustain the growth.

joan.bakewell@virgin.net

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