What do you do with £1.57 billion for culture?

It took a while, and a lot of concerted pressure, but the British government has decided not to be remembered for allowing the UK’s cultural life to shrivel and die. It has gone back to the magic money tree it discovered in March and brought home £1.57 billion to protect the ‘future of Britain’s museums, galleries, theatres, independent cinemas, heritage sites and music venues’. It would take monumental bad faith not to applaud what the government has done for culture at a time when almost every part of society is asking for help. It is also right to remember that it had to be pushed into helping keep poor children fed during the summer (at a cost of £120 million) and that 30% of British children live in poverty: celebrating culture’s windfalls will always be ambiguous in a country with 2,000 foodbanks. Public spending on culture cannot be separated from these realities, but that is part of a larger political argument about what kind of society we choose to be. That argument continues, reinvigorated by the existential questions raised by the pandemic, but culture is the focus of this blog and the government’s rescue fund raises particular and urgent questions. 

There is still little detail about how the new money will be used, or who might benefit, but two things already seem clear. First, the government is thinking about cultural institutions and buildings – businesses it does not want to see fail. That much is clear from the beneficiaries it names, and the allocation of £200 million to national organisations and building projects. Secondly, it appears that government intends to decide where the money goes, albeit ‘working alongside expert independent figures from the sector including the Arts Council England and other specialist bodies such as Historic England, National Lottery Heritage Fund and the British Film Institute.’  This might mean nothing very much, or it might mean a significant new seizure of decisions historically taken at arm’s length from party politics. Time will tell, but it seems likely that Arts Council England will not have a free hand over how this money is spent in the arts.

To be fair, decisions will be needed quickly if arts and cultural organisations are to survive, and much of the money will go in firefighting. But will emergency funds reach small arts organisations or the myriad freelance artists, technicians, educators and other cultural workers on whom all the institutions depend? If we get this wrong, we might save the buildings but have nothing much to present in them, because a coming generation of young artists has been forced out of the profession. And since those with least personal security will find it hardest to stay afloat, even the limited progress achieved in making the cultural sector representative of our society is likely to be lost. So what can be done? I can’t pretend I have worked out solutions, but I have been thinking for several weeks about two ideas that are, at least partly, in the control of arts organisations and the Arts Council, and that are made much more viable thanks to the new funds that will come to the sector.

The first is a challenge to the cultural institutions – theatres, museums, orchestras, dance companies and the rest. If they now get the resources to keep going, I hope they will consider what they can do for the artists they have – and have not yet – worked with. Now is the time to create some open ended commissions. Give artists some funds with no strings attached, some money to think, dream, experiment, write, play, make – some money to wander off their usual beats, to go wherever they want, to respond to this crisis and find the stories, the images, the performances that might help us make sense of what we’re going through. I’ve thought for months that the programmes planned before the lockdown wouldn’t make sense afterwards. We’re not the same people and the things that spoke to us then might just sound tinny now. So use this time when nothing else can happen to create. Commissions are the best way to help freelance creative people – get them working with the prospect of bringing new work to you or to someone else. And now is the time to commission the artists you’ve not hired before – the artists who don’t fit the usual profile of your programme, the ones who challenge your values and your audiences. What do you have to lose? These are open-ended commissions, no strings attached. They can bring you something afterwards and you might decide you want it. Or they can take it somewhere else. It doesn’t matter – it’s a gesture of generosity, of selflessness, to match the one that will mean your organisation is getting funds to stay afloat. Pass it on. 

The second idea needs the backing of Arts Council England. It will also need the backing of thousands of other organisations too – local authorities, schools, sports facilities, charities, arts venues, village halls, community centres etc. – but they will respond if they get a lead. Children and young people have been locked down for months, cut off from their friends and usual activities, feeling the anxiety of adults around them, learning how unpredictable the world can be. Let’s use some of this funding to give our children and young people the best playscheme there has ever been. Ask the cohort of community and participatory artists to prepare a creative summer in communities across the country, so that every child has the joy of making art, being with their peers, learning through art, music, drama, hip hop, video, painting, photography, dance… Let them be creative discovering how to do things in a safe way. Do we need to wear visors? Fine, we’ll make a play about space. Do we need to keep our distance? No problem, we’ll create a semaphore artwork. There are more ideas, more possibilities, than there are community artists, and there’s no end of them. They know how to do stuff, stuff that’s clever and fun and full of amazement, and there are millions of children who desperately need some fun and amazement (and can bring their own cleverness too). There’s not much time, we’re already into the first week of July, but community artists are resourceful and people are already working on thisThey just need to be asked to do it, and given some resources.

Two simple ideas: commission artists with a free hand and a generous spirit, and give children the most creative summer possible. Two ideas that would do the best thing for freelance artists right now: ask them to do their work. Two ideas that would produce real value for society at large. Neither one is very clever or very difficult. You could do each for one hundredth of £1.57 billion (and have plenty left for the shinies, to borrow Stella Duffy term). I know that they’re not worked out, and that there are lots of things I haven’t thought of – but if we can build a hospital in 10 days is it really beyond our capacity to organise some commissions and youth arts work?

It is only a matter of resources and desire. Well, the government has put up the first. Can we do the rest?