Westminster Hall Debate on Funding for the Arts

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Yesterday I spoke in a Westminster Hall debate on Funding for the Arts. Arts and culture play a hugely important role in our society, and in addition make a vital contribution to our economy. I’m very concerned, however, about the future of the arts in a climate of austerity, and I touched on some of these issues in my exchanges with the Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey MP. You can also see my contributions, and the minister’s responses, in the videos below.


Thangam Debbonaire:
The right hon. Gentleman is making a good point, but what does he think about how local authorities are expected to cope with keeping their arts budgets at a static point? I have to say that Bristol has managed it, and I am proud of that, but most are struggling because of the cuts to their grants from central Government. Would the right hon. Gentleman care to comment on that?

Ed Vaizey: One of the things we wanted to do in the culture White Paper, which I published before I left the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, was to take forward a partnership with local councils showing how the arts and heritage play a huge role in place-making and how different funding streams—not just the core funding stream from Department for Communities and Local Government or via the Arts Council—could help to support arts organisations. There is a lot we can do. Things like the UK capital of culture programme, for example, are great ways of galvanizing local authorities into taking their arts and heritage more seriously, but there are still bad news stories. For example, I was depressed to learn this week that Walsall is thinking of closing the New Art Gallery Walsall, which I regard as a great cultural institution.

I do not want to be a backseat driver. I wanted to use this debate to praise our arts and heritage sectors and what they have achieved, and to look briefly forward at what can be achieved in the future. Last week the Minister announced the museums review. That is a great opportunity to put our national museums, and some of our key regional museums, on a secure footing and to make absolutely clear what the relationship is between central Government and our national and regional museums and also what central Government are prepared to fund as core support and what they would expect national and regional museums to raise for themselves. Similarly, with the review of the Arts Council and other organisations that may take place shortly, I hope the Minister will think deeply about the core level of funding that the arts and heritage should receive.

A new Government, with fresh Ministers and renewed energy, have a chance to put arts and heritage funding on a secure and core footing. I am not asking for the earth. I am not asking for a 100% increase in core arts and heritage funding. A small and modest increase would not only make a significant difference to the arts and heritage; perhaps more importantly, it would stand, as the words of the then Chancellor showed in last year’s autumn statement, as an extraordinary vote of confidence in some of the greatest organisations we will find anywhere in the world, and that vote of confidence would be repaid many times over.

Thangam Debbonaire: I thank the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) for securing this debate and for doing so much in his time as Minister for the arts. I very much admired his commitment and could see that he was passionate about the arts—there will be a “but” eventually, but he knows that.

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. I started learning the cello when I was four and I never stopped. I went to a music school that was publicly funded. I was a professional musician and a member of the Musicians’ Union, off and on, until my early 40s. I also married an actor who was originally an opera singer and is now an opera singer again. My sister is an artist, my parents are both musicians and art has been integral to who I am for my whole life. I really believe in the value of art for art’s sake because I know what a difference it has made to my life. I am here for today’s debate because I want everyone to experience that joy in whatever form it takes for them.

First and foremost, I want to emphasise the terms and conditions of people who are working in the arts. Without a properly remunerated, well supported workforce ​with decent terms and conditions, no industry at all can do well. Actors, musicians, dancers, painters, writers and technicians all need decent terms and conditions and too often are expected to work for very little or sometimes even no money.

Hon. Members have mentioned the words “funding” and “subsidy” today, and I want to try and change the language by talking about “investment.” The arts deliver an amazing return on investment. I do not have the figures with me—I used them somewhere else in another speech—but I know hon. Members here will be aware of just how much the arts give back to this country’s economy. If we are talking in purely economic terms, I think it is time that we stopped calling public money in the arts “a subsidy” or “funding” and called it “investment”.

Ed Vaizey: I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Lady; could Hansard strike from the record any reference that I made to “subsidy” instead of “investment”? I believe that the then Chancellor said in his autumn statement last year that £1 billion invested in the arts returns £250 billion—and if the Treasury allowed that statistic out the door, it must be true.

Thangam Debbonaire: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for reminding me of the figures. The Labour Government made arts and arts investment a real priority.

I will give a few examples of where arts investment goes and what it does in my constituency. Ujima is a community radio station with extraordinary reach. It touches the subjects that other radio stations go nowhere near. It has some public funding, but also generates a lot of its own income and does its own work. On Saturday, it was given a fantastic and well-deserved award by the Community Media Association.

Many people in Bristol know the Watershed as somewhere to go for coffee or to see a film. They may not realise that behind the doors is the Pervasive Media Studio, where artists go to collaborate, create something new and discover together. Very often, although not always, that collaboration turns into something commercial. Sometimes, it leads to a piece of theatre that needs more public investment, but sometimes it leads to something that can actually make money. I was privileged to visit the Pervasive Media Studio and to literally get my hands on one of its new inventions, which looks like a football with many sides, but is actually a musical instrument that DJs can use in nightclubs—something that I know nothing about. Apparently I got the hang of it really quickly, or maybe they were just flattering me.

Public investment helps the commercial sector. I always fall back on the “Skyfall” example. A colleague in the National Theatre pointed out to me a while ago that, although that is a commercial film, the lead characters and the director—Sam Mendes, Judi Dench and Daniel Craig—started out in publicly invested theatre. Sam Mendes did not just wake up one morning and decide to make “Skyfall”. He had been doing lots of other things, thanks to public investment.

I need to mention—the right hon. Member for Wantage knows that I will—the consequences of no public funding. He and other hon. Members have mentioned local authorities that have made huge cuts, but local councillors talk to me about dealing with the impact of cuts to ​central Government grants. When many local authorities serving deprived communities are faced with a difficult decision between the arts and the high cost of child protection, housing needs or other needs, they will cut the arts.

Now, I do not like that, the right hon. Member for Wantage does not like that and I am pretty sure that the Minister will not like it, but we need to face reality and accept the fact that local government and central Government grants have an impact. The right hon. Member for Wantage argued against ring-fenced funding. I get that argument, but there is a consequence when we cut Department for Communities and Local Government funding.

The Centre for Economics and Business Research has evaluated the impact of arts and culture on the economy, and it is massive. The arts and culture industries are so often more productive than other industries and, as well as generating economic value, they generate joy. I can testify to something that other hon. Members have mentioned—the value of arts in health and wellbeing. When I was being treated at Southmead hospital last year, I was privileged to see the cathedral to health that has been created there, and how much art and culture was built into the fabric of the building. There are works of art, changing exhibitions and a grand piano at which a variety of musicians play all sorts of wonderful music, which uplifted me in moments when otherwise I felt very down.

The public investment that we put into the arts more than earns its keep economically, through social aspects and wellbeing, and through regeneration of deprived areas, which is something that I have not mentioned, but for which there is a great deal of evidence. It is important that we take notice of workers’ terms and conditions, and recognise that public funding for the arts should be seen as an investment that has huge commercial opportunities when properly supported. We need to stop thinking about art as a subsidy.

Art, for my money, should truly be for everybody. As Jennie Lee said in her first arts White Paper way back in the ’60s—and I am pretty sure that the right hon. Member for Wantage said something similar in his White Paper—art, and our support for it as public citizens, should truly be for everybody. It enriches us, lifts us up and helps us to make something better out of the world we live in.

 

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