In my speech to the Equity National Conference on 23 May, I outlined the six themes I'm working on as Shadow Minister for Arts and Culture and explained why arts and culture are so important.
My speech to Equity National Conference 23 May 2016
I am here to say that above all else, I value art and culture for its own sake. Art just matters for so many things.
I was originally trained as a musician, started learning the cello when I was four and never stopped, went to music school and was a professional musician – and member of the Musicians’ Union – off and on until my early forties.
I married an actor – he was originally an opera singer and then retrained in his twenties, worked with a company which sadly no longer exists – some of you may remember it: the Medieval Players – then on to the Donmar Warehouse and the National Theatre, and throughout that time was frequently the Equity branch manager. My sister is an artist, my parents both musicians and arts and culture have been integral to who I am my whole life. So I understand and really believe in the value of art for arts’ sake.
As Shadow Minister for Arts and Culture I am focusing particularly on six things – and I’ll rattle through them quickly so we can have time for questions.
First and foremost, terms and conditions. Without a properly remunerated, well-supported workforce who have decent terms and conditions, no industry can do well. Actors, musicians, dancers, painters, writers and technicians – they all need decent terms and conditions.
Which leads me on to the second, which is public funding for the arts and culture and a mention for Ed Vaizey, the government minister I shadow. To be fair to Ed, he clearly does also love the arts. He published the first government White Paper on arts and culture in 50 years – the first one was by Labour’s Jennie Lee in 1966, the year I was born. She was the first Arts Minister and she set a high standard for real concrete support for the arts and in beautiful language. Ed published his a few weeks ago – have any of you read it? – and his love of the arts shines through. What also unfortunately shines through is the lack of hard cash. Tory politicians love the arts, they just don’t like paying for it – other than in private donations. That just keeps art and culture the preserve of the wealthy. Well, I’m a Labour politician. We want art and culture to be for everyone, and the highest quality and range of art and culture to be for everyone.
Public funding helps the commercial sector – look at Skyfall. A colleague in the National Theatre pointed this out to me: Sam Mendes, Judi Dench, Daniel Craig – they all started out in the publicly funded theatre. Sam Mendes didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to make Skyfall; he’d been doing other things thanks to public funding.
Look at the consequences of no public funding. The government has been really clever. They haven’t actually cut national funding that much. Every year since 2010 we’ve braced ourselves for cuts to the arts and they’ve escaped by and large – except that they haven’t. The government was waving one hand over here to distract us from what the other hand was doing. What the other hand was doing was cutting local government funding.
Five museums in Lancashire are threatened with closure because of cuts from the local authority. You all probably know of other arts institutions around the country which are suffering. Imagine what sort of towns and cities we would have if there was no cultural life there – they would be unbearable, dismal places to live and work. How would those places keep people from moving to other places that were better to live in?
The Centre for Economics and Business Research has evaluated the impact of arts and culture on the economy and it’s massive. Arts and culture industries are more productive than others, generate economic value added to other industries such as hospitality and tourism. I can testify to the benefits of music and literature during health treatment, and increasingly hospitals and other healthcare buildings are constructed with art as an integral part of their fabric. My local hospital, newly opened Southmead Hospital, has permanent and changing art exhibitions, performance space, and places to sit and read. These are all good for helping people to cope with treatment or looking after someone else who is ill.
The public investment we put into the arts more than earns its keep economically; it gives back many times over for economic growth, for health and well-being and for regeneration of deprived areas.
So public funding matters. And that brings me on to the third theme, cultural education. Every child, every single child, should have arts and culture education which is outstanding, varied, inspiring and involving. Darren Henley, CEO of the Arts Council, talks about the lifetime of artists and says that if we want people at 18, 19, 20 to be developing into outstanding performers and creators we need to attend to what is happening to them twenty years earlier, as babies, toddlers and small children, as well as all the way through school. I am very concerned about what is happening to the curriculum and as schools change structure and opt out of any national curriculum requirements my fear is that arts and culture may become the add-on, the optional extra that’s easy to drop. Education also has to be creative across the curriculum. We need physics, biology, history and so on to be taught creatively – and I know many, many teachers and schools do just that, but it needs to be across the board. Why? Because I want the engineers of the future to be creative; I want the mental health workers of the future to be creative; we should all want the teachers, managers and politicians of the future to be creative.
So cultural education and public funding matter, but they also require the arts world to reflect the public who pay for this. I’ve got no problem with the acting or music profession having so many people in it from more privileged backgrounds, but I want this to be representative of the population as a whole. We need art and culture to be truly representative of, and accessible to, the full diversity of the population, in governance, production and consumption. This could mean many different things in different professions. Why not more casting of disabled actors in non-disabled parts? BME actors in non-ethnically specific parts? I know that this is happening in places, but I want to encourage more of this, so that art truly reflects who we are and people can recognise themselves in there, can see culture as something which is for them, not for some other group of people.
And that’s why equality of opportunity matters so much. If we rely on unpaid internships as a way into a profession, or other unpaid routes, or we don’t have adequate funding for higher education in the arts, we will be left with arts and culture only for rich people.
So terms and conditions, public funding, cultural education, diversity, equality of opportunity and art for arts’ sake. Those six themes are what I’m working on as Shadow Minister for the Arts and Culture. I’ll be making these arguments to my colleagues in the Labour Party as well as the government and making sure I do my best to help to give Labour councillors and MPs the arguments they need to help protect funding for the arts even in tough times.
So I close by saying that I just love the arts. I’m so fortunate that in my job I get to spend time seeing many different art forms. As an example of what they can do, I was lucky enough to be at the filming of Shakespeare Live! in Stratford recently. It was great; sort of a Shakespeare variety show, a bit of ballet, a bit of opera, a bit of a play, some comedy, Prince Charles came on for a punch line. All good and fun stuff. And then Ian McKellen came on and gave his speech, from the last surviving play script handwritten by William Shakespeare, as Sir Thomas More berating the people of London for rioting against foreigners. We were all blown away. It was so moving. And it made such strong connections to today’s debate about refugees and how we do or do not welcome them. I used it the following Monday in my speech on unaccompanied child refugees – possibly foolishly, as I am clearly no Ian McKellen – but it made my point; it made people think; it showed us a different way of thinking. That’s what great art can do. It can change things.
So I hope you can tell that I’m on your side, arguing that arts and culture are good, just for their own sake. They’re what makes us human and what makes life worth living.