Martin Cullingford, who is Editor of Gramophone Magazine, spoke at the Conservative Renewal Conference earlier this year. This is what he had to say.
Firstly, it’s a delight to have a debate about the arts as a key part of a conference about conservative ideas. Because it disproves the sadly widely held misconception that seems to exist, among so many who should know better, that conservatives don’t really care about the arts.
It’s entrenched. I so often encounter a presumption in the arts world that it, and the people within it, are anti-conservative – and that conservatives in turn are anti the arts world. I’m sure the audience here is sufficiently cultural to render that presumption the nonsense that it is. But still that view persists.
So my first proposal is that those in the arts who are conservatives should speak up and speak out: conservatives are too often the silent ones. Consequently, conservatives have allowed themselves to be painted as anti-arts, not because they necessarily have been or are as individuals, but because they’ve tended to focus on economics, industry and so on. Unfair – and it can be self-perpetuating.
But if conservatives are to speak up, what should be said – what might be the important perspectives on the arts that conservatism can bring?
Firstly, that the arts are one of the key means by which we can better understand our past and sense of place, and the role that has to play in the present. Conservatives well understand the importance – and in fact unavoidability – of taking the wisdom, and errors, of the past into the future with us, and making that a part of how we evolve and develop. There are few better cross-generational conduits for this than culture. Art, whether music, painting, or literature, is the best embodiment of the spirit of a people I know. Furthermore, it can also be vital in helping understand the cultures of others too, which in our modern, global but increasingly homogenous world, is more important than ever before.
Secondly, the arts are also an important part of education, if by education we include, as we should, helping children grow in confidence and understanding of the world around them. Look at the important work done by orchestra outreach programmes, or theatre education programmes, in giving young people a space to take responsibility for themselves, to explore the world around them thoughtfully, to engage with culture, and to stand in front of an audience and perform. Give a child an instrument, or a stage, and you give them the ability to feed their mind, and to become a more rounded, and confident adult.
Neither is ‘education’ just for children either. We learn throughout our lives. Many an opera is rich in lessons of forgiveness, many a painting a powerful embodiment of a moral lesson, or many a play or poem can tell us more about loss and love than anything else we may encounter. Lessons that mean different things throughout our lives.
Thirdly, there is the freedom that art offers. Speak to many artists, and you will discover that it is in performance, or creative activities, that they can most be free. Free from the expectations of their peers, free from the immediate environment which invariably lends towards consensus. Freedom to be bold, freedom to be brave. Free to truly explore and understand, and comment upon and criticise, the world around them.
A sense of place, a role in education of many kinds, and a sphere of freedom. Conservatives should thus recognise the importance of art in our society, and stand up – both within the wider world but, actually, the conservative political world too – and argue for it. But they should also be wary of stifling that freedom by trying to control it, or decide too strongly what the arts should or shouldn’t be. Facilitators, not providers. The current principle of channeling money to arms lengths bodies such as the Arts Council to distribute is not a bad one. The Arts Council, however, always needs to insist recipient organisations justify government money they receive, not least in internal management and transparency of spending.
Let’s now look at the issue of funding itself. I strongly belief it is a good thing for governments to contribute to the arts if it’s the way of ensuring they exist and thrive. And, of course, our government does. Many may sympathise with the position the Treasury placed the Culture Secretary in in having to persuade the arts to argue the case for the commercial viability of what they do. Times are tough, budgets are tight. But I can’t help feeling that the rhetoric was wrong. Because the government didn’t actually cut the arts budget as dramatically as feared. But the wider perception was not of a government limiting the loss to the arts budget, but of a party placing profit above ‘arts for arts’ sake’. Something of an own goal. And as I’ve outlined above, there are many things conservatives should support the arts for which just aren’t conducive to profit. Some arts can be profitable – often unexpectedly, which is not an unimportant point in itself. But not all will be, and profitability is not always a meaningful guide to worth in a wider sense. According to the organisation Arts & Business, earned income to arts organisations only accounts for 37% of arts funding as a total. Government – national and local – spending currently accounts for 41% of arts funding: without it, the arts would look very different indeed.
However, a good conservative principal should always be to see if things can be funded and created from means other than the tax system too. And so a big part of the challenge is also to encourage and explore wider funding streams for the arts. Business and private giving accounts for 22% of arts funding. It’s not the largest slice of the pie, but it’s an important one, and it’s arguably the one where much more can be done.
Over many years we’ve seen the successful role corporate organisations play in sponsoring exhibitions and concerts. The opportunity to present a positive image to customers and staff, possibilities of corporate entertainment, all these make good sense as well as being a good thing to do. Look historically, and whether monarchs or great Renaissance families, patrons of culture have been positive forces behind so much great art – often for reasons of self-aggrandisement, but we’re the beneficiaries. Companies and businesses are in many ways the heirs to such a role.
The arts can also be vital in attracting people to visit an area, to spend money in restaurants or hotels, or to choose to live somewhere made more exciting because of the arts. When talking about arts generating profits, it’s often at one remove. Perhaps the commercial beneficiaries of the existence of arts organisations could be encouraged by the government to be more supportive of the arts in their area, for example by encouraging them to donate advertising, helping fund projects, perhaps helping funding staff posts, all of which could alleviate running costs.
Individuals should also be encouraged to acknowledge that if art is important in their life, they should be prepared to pay for it themselves. Not least, because it is when we feel a personal investment in something, that it feels most meaningful. Many do already, of course, but I despair every time I hear someone declare arts are elitist, by which they mean for the wealthy, when a concert ticket is so much cheaper than, say, a football match. Or a fringe theatre ticket less than a cinema ticket for a Hollywood movie or the cost of a pop album. It’s too often an excuse, but not an explanation.
There are also doubtless lessons to be learnt from organisations that don’t compromise their work at all, yet can still be self-, or rather, supporter-funded, like the Royal Academy of Arts or the National Trust. Support should also be given to imaginative and innovative ideas, such as crowd funding, which not only raises money but also draws donors into the projects as they develop, giving them that important sense of ownership and involvement.
Perhaps arts lovers could simply be encouraged to make a commitment to themselves and to others to put a certain amount back in the arts, whether through commitment to buy a ticket each month or couple of months, or joining a membership scheme, which allows arts institutions to plan confidently. Those in churches invariably make a commitment to charitable donation, many others will sign up to charity direct debits, so why not the arts? More than half of individual giving to the arts is through membership schemes. There is always a danger that people can take the arts for granted – they shouldn’t.
But we should also recognise that some people simply can’t afford tickets, so where government does fund an organisation, the recipient should prove that where money really is a barrier for some, they can be helped to be part of the arts, for all the positive reasons mentioned above. After all, it’s such people who can, in fact, be the most important people for the transformative power of the arts to reach.