Give art a sporting chance

The diversion of arts funding to pay for the 2012 Olympics has caused uproar, and rightly so. But the art world has only itself to blame.

Tiffany Jenkins

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Topics Culture

A chorus of complaint has erupted from the British art world after hearing that their lottery funding is to be slashed by £152million to pay for the ever-spiralling costs of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. The wail is getting louder in the run up to the Comprehensive Spending Review when the Treasury finalises budgets for the next three years. Cultural leaders anticipate the news that their funding could be cut further.

They are right to be angry, the arts need money. There is never enough – so to have what was pledged taken away means budgeting is ruined and plans severely disrupted. But whilst I have every sympathy, the cultural sector only has itself to blame for losing the argument for the money. And if they don’t change their tune they will forgo any reason for it altogether.

Over the last decade, arts professionals have fallen over themselves to promote an instrumental case for the arts, which has reaped short-term results. From the late 1990s, cultural leaders pledged to deliver on a range of economic, social and political ends. Policy documents, such as Libraries, Museums, Galleries and Archives for All: Co-operating across the Sectors to Tackle Social Exclusion and Centres for Social Change: Museums Galleries and Archives for all, made the approach explicit.

Only recently seven major organisations, including Arts Council England and the Museums Association, teamed up to produce Values and Vision: The Contribution of Culture. In this proposal for money, they cravenly plead to the government for cash on the basis of non-artistic outcomes, stating their work will improve: ‘participation’, ‘self-esteem’ ‘community cohesion’, social regeneration’, ‘economic vitality’ and ‘health’. There is little mention of the quality of the art, dance, exhibitions, or musicals these institutions could foster.

Government jumped on these claims. Margaret Hodge, the culture minister, has framed her demand on the Treasury by stating the arts could be a catalyst for regeneration. She argues theatre and culture should be placed at the centre of this strategy. Hodge does not mention the drama that could be created or the orchestras that could be supported. The scheme of gaining funds for the social outputs of the arts has secured money in the past, but always with strings attached. Professionals have tried to tackle social problems, meet targets and tick the right boxes, instead of concentrating on their artistic work. Trying to evaluate their results for the funding bureaucrats spawns costly and time-consuming research aiming to prove that their efforts have worked.

But the long-term effect has been draining and self-defeating, as the arts bodies seem to have lost sight of the unique qualities and value of culture. Over time, the special case for the arts has been forgotten. It means that when some other activity or sector comes up, which similarly claims to help us participate, regenerate or raise our self-esteem, the arts have to compete on purely these terms. And this is what has happened with the Olympics.

The government is now looking to the Olympic Games to deliver similar outcomes to those it has asked of the arts over recent years. This is a warning to sports fans; forget training the best, the fittest and the fastest. UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has proclaimed his ‘great ambition for 2012’ is ‘a nation fitter in health and stronger in civic spirit’, suggesting the Games will increase volunteering, create community cohesion and tackle obesity. The Treasury promotes 2012 as a means of achieving a whole range of ‘non-sporty’ ends from urban regeneration, to economic prosperity; indeed it lists many of the same outcomes that the arts have tried to claim as their own over recent years. Reading through all the paperwork, it is hard to tell sport and art apart.

Hence culture and sport find themselves competing, not as discreet public goods or ends in their own right, but as interchangeable vehicles aiming to deliver on a set of identical priorities, which does neither of them any favours. Once the arts are viewed merely as a tool for delivering prescribed economic or social outcomes, there is no reason why the arts should be favoured. And when it comes down to evaluating what will deliver on economic regeneration or health, it is likely the Olympics will win – and the arts are in no position to complain.

Culture is on the back foot and it stands to lose out. The only way for the sector to gain support today is to pick up the baton and re-popularise the unique artistic value of their work. Let’s call on cultural leaders to strike a different note and to trumpet the intrinsic value of the arts.

Tiffany Jenkins is a writer and researcher. Visit her blog here. She is chairing the sessions Teach the world to sing and Cultural diversity: a straitjacket for the arts? at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

Previously on spiked

Tiffany Jenkins addressed the shortcomings of art-as-spectacle and reviewed The Nature of the Beast – a book which argues that cultural diversity is creating ‘disorgnised apartheid’ in the arts. Nathalie Rothschild saw Tate Britain’s first major photography show. Anna Travis said that ‘interactive art’ is turning galleries into mindless playgrounds. Bill Durodié witnessed a cultural revolution at Tate Liverpool. Or read more at spiked issue Arts and entertainment.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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