An even break for young artists

Three months ago, I agreed to make a ‘digital postcard’ for the engage conference, which takes place in Cardiff today and tomorrow. It was a mistake: saying something useful (or even engaging) in three minutes to camera is not a skill I possess. My estimation of local TV reporters and documentary presenters grew as I struggled for air in the medium through which they glide so effortlessly. So, returning to my own medium, here’s what I was trying to say.

Many things changed in the 1960s. Among the most important was that young people from working class families started to get the chance to do something with their creativity. It was then that people like Ridley Scott, David Puttnam, Mary Quant and countless others got their first chance in fashion, advertising, music and the media. They established a meritocratic path that bright, imaginative, hungry young people have followed ever since into the arts.

British—indeed Western—culture benefited immensely from this injection of new energy and the different ways of seeing that it brought. But very little of this change was brought about by government. Though politicians have always sought glamour by association (as Tony Blair did when he invited Noel Gallagher to Downing Street at the height of Cool Britannia) their understanding of and commitment to culture remains weak and partial.

Indeed, the closure of Creative Partnerships by the present government is particularly sad because it was, while not perfect, a genuinely radical commitment to creative learning that was opening new doors to children in some of this country’s poorest areas. El Sistema, Venezuala’s inspirational youth music programme, has been lauded and imitated by British politicians. Creative Partnerships, invented here, is now being taken up only abroad, in the Netherlands, Germany, Lithuania and Qatar through the work of its parent, CCE.

This autumn, British universities are welcoming a new cohort of first year students, young people on the threshold of adulthood, many of them hoping to establish themselves in the arts and creative industries. But there are already fewer than there were. In 2012, as annual tuition fees rose to £9,000, numbers fell by 12%.

And this year’s arts graduates, so full of hope and promise in their gowns and mortarboards this summer, are settling down to the hard task of finding work. Most of them are under 24. This summer, just under a million 16-24 year olds were unemployed—a rate of 20.5% compared to 7.9 % for the working population as a whole (ONS Labour Market Statistics).

Graduates with resources behind them might get an unpaid internship, that blend of exploitation and condescension so characteristic of contemporary economic culture. Some, having proved their face fits, will get taken on. For the rest, the future is uncertain, as arts budgets are cut by local and national government, and the consumer economy—on which so much of the creative industries depends—contracts.

Today, Arts Council England will announce its plans for delivery of the Creative Employment Programme, which is intended to support up to 6,500 apprenticeships and paid internships across the arts and cultural sectors over the next 30 months. Made possible by National Lottery funds, it is exactly the sort of ambitious programme a national arts agency ought to put in place at a time like this. Like Creative Partnerships, it will have its teething problems and its flaws, but it remains a courageous effort to help thousands of young people to fulfil their creative potential. They will benefit but so will the country as a whole in 15 or 30 years time, when they are the Scotts, Puttnams and Quants of their day.

But one programme is not enough to prevent the waste of talent that always happens in times like these. Nor should we expect any single response to deal with every aspect of what is happening. The Creative Employment Programme is likely to help those who want to go into arts and cultural management more than the actors, writers, musicians and artists on whose work everything depends.

Many arts organisations are finding things hard. They have lost financial support and audiences may be harder to attract. Running the business is an increasingly demanding daily struggle. But that should not be a reason to turn away from the young people who come to the door—or more likely send an email—looking for a chance, a start, a hand up. They deserve a break. They deserve to be met with optimism and an open door. They deserve encouragement precisely because they are going to find it so much harder to get started than their predecessors did.

By taking a risk on them, inventing alternative ways of working with young creative people, and making themselves more porous, lively and open, cultural institutions will invigorate themselves and improve their own chances of thriving in tough times. We must inspire the young artists who are just starting out so that they, when their time comes, will inspire others in their turn.