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Wednesday, 30 May, 2001, 10:32 GMT 11:32 UK
Arts policy and funding

Labour was cheered into office by many in the arts establishment - but did it live up to their expectations?

Arts and culture funding is a devolved matter dealt with in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by their respective bodies. Broadcasting remains a Westminster issue.


BACKGROUND

In 1997 a chorus of eminent artists, writers, musicians and actors lined up to support the incoming Labour government.

After years in which many high-profile figures had bemoaned what they said was a lack of backing for the arts by the Conservatives, there was a genuine feeling of optimism.

Tony Blair famously courted some of the biggest names in the arts industry with a series of high profile parties at 10 Downing Street.

The sight of Oasis star Noel Gallagher sharing a glass of champagne with the new prime minister led many to believe that the arts were to become a priority for the government.

The expectation among the arts world that this would be the case was further fuelled when Labour announced that the Department of National Heritage would be reborn as the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) with Chris Smith as the first culture secretary.


POLICY FRAMEWORK

Labour said that its policies would be aimed at making sure the most disadvantaged in society had a chance to partake in the arts, sports and culture as part of the wider goal of tackling social exclusion.

The department has also sought to widen its education responsibilities within a "lifelong learning" remit set out by Labour.

Labour used 200m of lottery money to establish the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, (Nesta), an organisation charged with supporting creative people to put their ideas into practice.

It also launched a new Film Council, backed by 150m of funding and developed a new strand of National Lottery funding, the New Opportunities Fund.

But one of the most significant changes in subsidies for culture, says Labour, has been its extra funding for the national galleries and museums.

Labour had already announced that the government would subsidise national museum and gallery admissions charges from September 2001.

But the 2001 Budget introduced new VAT measures which Labour says will mean that museums and galleries will be able to charge free admission from 1 December 2001.


CRITICISMS

While Labour in government appeared to get off to a good start with strong support from the industry, it has also been criticised for putting the control of lottery money for the arts - one of the six good causes - in the hands of the Arts Council of England.

The Commons Public Accounts Committee strongly criticised the Arts Council of England's spending of hundreds of millions of pounds of National Lottery money.

The committee questioned the ability of the council to run such a vast grant-giving operation and made it clear that MPs believed that the public was losing out.

So far, the Arts Council has awarded more than 1bn to an estimated 8,300 projects.

But the committee said that in 13 of the 15 projects it examined, totalling 325m of public spending, the Arts Council had overspent.

Labour has rejected the charge, saying that lottery funding has been reformed.

It says that since it came to power it has ensured that more money is going to a wider range of projects, spread more evenly across the country.


DOUBTS OVER INTENTIONS

The enthusiasm of many among the arts world has also waned as doubts about the government's commitment to the arts has grown.

Former supporters have lined up to attack the government, including the respected theatre director Sir Peter Hall and playwright Tom Stoppard.


It seems to be the case, unfortunately, that despite the government's extremely comfortable majority, they still seem to be super-sensitive to offending the philistine sensibilities of the electorate

Tom Stoppard
In 1999, Sir Peter and others launched the Shadow Arts Council as a response to what it sees as the relegation of the more established arts in favour of populist gimmicks. Their solution - a doubling of the public subsidy.

He accused the government of being "puritan and philistine" and announced that he would be working full time in America in protest at the continuing low level of funding.

The DCMS itself has come under increasing attack for pandering to populism and dumbing down the arts.

Sir John Drummond, former head of the Edinburgh Festival and BBC Radio 3, recently called Mr Blair a "professional philistine" and blamed the cabinet for laying waste to what is left of the "national sense of culture".

Popular culture has also had its say - former Blairites Noel Gallagher and Alan McGee, who discovered Oasis, have turned on the government.

One of the most infamous attacks came in 1998 when a member of pop band Chumbawamba threw a bucket of water over Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott in protest against what the band said was the party's attempts to hijack the pop culture for political gain.


NEW FUNDING

The Arts Council has been promised successive rises in its budget and saw funding gains in the 2000 Comprehensive Spending Review. Labour says that by 2003-04 it will receive 100m more than the 237m it received in 2000.

In 1998/89 the Arts Council of England received 189.4m and this year the arts body is due to receive 252.4m.

The Conservatives have accused Labour in government of being disingenuous with the figures.

They say that spending for arts and sport have been "fiddled, spun and inflated out of all recognition".

Furthermore, the Conservatives have attacked the New Opportunities Fund, saying that Labour is using its share of the National Lottery money to fund projects that should come out of the public purse and then claiming it as "extra spending". It is, they say, little more than a stealth tax.

But for opposition, the focus of much of its attack in the realm of arts and culture has remained the Millennium Dome.

In March Labour unveiled a green paper, offering a 10-year pan for the arts.

The paper outlinied 44 proposals, including plans to offer new grants for individual artists and to create longer funding deals for designated premier arts companies.

The government wants Britain's premier companies to be offered six-year funding deals.

The Arts Council described the proposals as "interesting" and said any funding deals should be secured for small as well as large arts companies.

The government also proposed setting up regional centres of excellence.

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