Too little, too narrow, too late, and where’s the passion?

On Wednesday morning I joined other figures from the arts world to hear Maria Miller’s first big speech as Culture Secretary, at the British Museum. 48 hours on, I’ve talked at length with lots of people, sometimes even quite sensibly, and have constructed a short, reasonably coherent response to it, which I’m sure I will repeat a few more times over the next few days, particularly at the What Next? Conference on Monday. There are also some great articles out there, from Sam West, Nick Hytner and Nick Starr and Dan Rebellato. I also came across this from economist John Kay, talking about why we should measure the value of the arts as much as their cost.

But here, as a form of catharsis, and because sometimes at the end of a long week you just have to, is a written up version of what ran through my mind as I listened to the Secretary of State’s speech on Wednesday morning. OK, here goes…

To my surprise, there was much to agree with in her opening lines…

“Arts and culture underpin what it means to be British; how we see ourselves; and how the world sees us. Our culture is our hallmark, and it makes the UK distinctive in a globalised world.”

Absolutely, Maria, I’m there with you on this. So’s everyone else in the room (I think). Where’s the flag? Oh, yep, it’s there, on stage on the DCMS banner. We love Danny Boyle! Wasn’t that NHS bit in the opening ceremony brilliant…

“The arts stimulate us, educate us, challenge and amuse us. They are of instrumental, as well as intrinsic, value and their social benefits are numerous and beyond doubt.”

Well, I’m not sure that everyone across the country gets this just yet, but it’s great to hear her say it. Way to go.

“With that in mind, today I want to argue that culture does not simply have a role to play in bringing about a return to growth. Rather, it should be central to these efforts.”

Yay, she gets that bit too – we help make money. Blimey.

“Understanding the economic potential which the arts and culture offer both directly and indirectly is essential.”

Yep, I’m a pragmatist, I know where the government stands on this, so I can go with this one. Anyway, I know we have the stats to back this up, so yep, that’s fine.

Oh oh. Hang on. We’ve changed tack. The first reference to “your sector”, when so far it’s been about all being in it together. Oh, and we’re off to familiar territory, and it’s as if we’re listening to Rent-a-Minister on the Today programme…

“Faced with a crippling budget deficit, there are big choices to be made at both a national and a local level, few of which are easy, or palatable…. You will all have seen the reported headline figures for the savings that will need to be made as part of the forthcoming Spending Review.”

And now, it’s getting worse. What to make of this next statement?

“Some in the sector say that arts funding should be treated as a special case. They argue that Government support for the arts is less than 1% of total Government funding; and that’s a drop in the ocean. Culture cannot be seen in isolation at a time of unprecedented economic challenge. Everyone has to play a part in our efforts to reduce the deficit, my Department is no exception. Do we want to be seen to inspire our children or leave them with a mountain of debt?”

And suddenly I’m directing my comments directly to the Secretary of State, albeit telepathically, and with little success….

Hang on a minute. Are you really saying that maintaining a commitment to the tiny 0.05% (that’s 5p in a pound) is going to cripple the country? Surely you’ve just told us that you realise we actually make a positive economic contribution to the country. Surely investing in the growth you’ve just said we’re a part of is the way to avoid that mountain of debt? And what’s that about inspiring our children? I’m pretty sure we do that too – really well. So, why are you framing this as a choice? Oh, I don’t like the way this is going… (If this was interactive telly, a la Question Time in my living room, I’d have been shouting very loudly by now. As it was, I resigned myself to a fair amount of huffing and loud whispering to the person sitting next to me.)

And then it really veered off into territory that was miles from where she’d started, just a few minutes earlier…

“It is with this at the fore of my mind that I come to you today and ask you to help me reframe the argument: to hammer home the value of culture to our economy. I know this will not be to everyone’s taste; some simply want money and silence from Government, but in an age of austerity, when times are tough and money is tight, our focus must be on culture’s economic impact.”

Nooooo! She doesn’t get it, after all. Not at all, on so many levels. OMG. Cue mass fidgeting in seats, whispering to neighbours, and more furious tweeting. Here’s what was going through my mind in the midst of all that(Still directly addressing the Secretary of State telepathically; no more of this third person stuff…)

Point number 1: Of course, we can hammer that message home; we’ve been hammering it home for as many years as I can remember.

Point number 2: Actually, we don’t want money and silence from government, we want useful, constructive dialogue, with a Secretary of State who believes in and can articulate all the arguments for why the arts matter and the impact they have. Attitude not platitudes, please, Secretary of State.

Point 3: With your reference to “culture’s economic impact”, if you’re going to focus on the ‘instrumental’ impact, think laterally. You’ve told us the arts “social benefits are numerous and beyond doubt”, so don’t forget to add into your economic case how the arts’ contribution to wellbeing, mental and physical health plays out economically, how the contribution to social cohesion has an impact on crime levels, how cultural education unlocks creativity and innovation, which by your own admission “underpins wider industry”.

Ok, time to tune back in again…

“To maintain the argument for continued public funding, we must make the case as a two-way street. We must demonstrate the healthy dividends that our investment continues to pay. That’s the argument that I, as Culture Secretary, intend to make in my approach to this spending round – and I need all your help in that endeavour.”

Hang on a minute. Why aren’t you making that argument already? Why are you only now asking us to help you? The Spending Review is going to be published in less than 2 months. What can we do that we haven’t already done in that time? How precisely do you want us to help you?

“So, over the coming weeks and months, I will argue that our cultural sector can bring opportunities, regeneration, jobs and growth.”

No, not “can” Secretary of State, “does”; the cultural sector “does” bring opportunities, regeneration, jobs and growth. And all that other stuff I just mentioned when I was fidgeting in my seat and getting nervous. You know, about social cohesion, and well being, and health. You know, the stuff that costs you – and us – billions of pounds every year.

So, maybe Maria has heard my loud whispers. She’s suddenly back to listing some of the contributions the arts make to the economy, and to cultural diplomacy…

“All the research shows that culture encourages tourists to visit our country. 40% of tourists to the UK cite culture and heritage as the primary reason for their visit. This generates tens of billions of pounds each year for the UK economy…through tickets and entrance fees, (and) ….in shops, hotels and restaurants. All of which is delivering real economic benefits to local businesses and local communities. This impact can be felt up and down the country. As we look to rebalance our economy geographically, regional arts and culture have an essential role to play.”

OK??? So, you do know the argument then? Now I’m at a total loss as to what the point of the speech is supposed to be.

And then, before we know it, it’s time for the closing call to arms…

“We specialise in creativity and innovation, and I remain committed to supporting the long-term sustainability of UK art and culture. We need to work together: to create, and to innovate… My call to you as arts and cultural leaders then is simple. I ask you:
• to continue to build resilience, self-confidence and self-reliance;
• to seek out new artistic and commercial opportunities;
• to position yourself squarely within the visitor economy;
• and to look for international opportunities which will benefit Britain.”

Oh, that’s it? There’s no policy, no plan for growth? No specifics? You’ve really finished? Just let me get this straight in my head…

…You’ve got the stats, but you need our help to make the case – with just 2 months to go till the Spending Review. So, that’s too late surely. How does this make any kind of sense?

…We’re central to economic growth, but there’s no growth strategy, just a continued focus on cuts. Oh-oh, that sound ominous to anyone else?

…We have a massive impact socially, on health, on education, on people’s ability to innovate, all of which have a massive economic impact in themselves, but you don’t want to talk about that to the Treasury. Really? As a fundraiser, that’s the kind of thing that I’m always asked to articulate. Think it might help us here too.

Secretary of State, we can help you with all of this, but I’m not sure it will do much good. It’s too little, too late. Not just because the Spending Review is 2 months away, but because I don’t believe you care, I don’t believe you want to make the argument.

In fact, I’m not sure you even believe the argument. And that’s the most worrying thing. The thing that will make the most difference in those discussions with the Treasury.

I do a lot of fundraising training, and one of the key things we drum into people charged with making a case for what they do is that being passionate, having a strong belief in what you’re talking about, and being able to convey this, is every bit as important as having the evidence. And, based on what you’ve said today, I don’t see any passion. I don’t see any belief. I don’t see you convincing George Osborne.

Hmmmm?, we really do have our work cut out…