I must have been rather annoying lately. I’ve been on a bit of a mission to encourage serious commentators and researchers to employ more precision with terminologies they use to advocate the arts and the cultural sector. I’ve done this through a couple of emails, comments on threads and lots of tweets, asking the Guardian’s Culture Cuts blog, the RSA State of the Arts conference, Arts and Business and a few other cultural advocates to clarify their terms but have had virtually no response. So after a day of intensified nagging on Twitter I thought I had better explain what I mean and why it matters. The context is well known. The UK Government has decided to tackle the deficit much more rapidly than anyone expected, targeting many public services for cuts, with culture absolutely on the front line for the execution squads, especially in local authorities and in education. In the face of this the cultural sector has not united to challenge the cuts, though there are active networks challenging cuts to the arts and to libraries. There are several bodies well placed to advocate for the whole cultural sector, and I certainly feel grateful for the platforms they are offering. The problem is that they generally undermine the case they are making, and do some parts of the cultural sector a particular disservice, by their lazy terminology. I don’t think this is about linguistic style or agreeing the specific words we use for parts of the sector, but about category errors and conflations which affect statistical claims about the value of culture. For example, Arts & Business has just published a report which was tweeted with headlines that 80% of FTSE 100 companies don’t sponsor the arts, but the research included heritage, museums and libraries.
I should set out how I interpret the shape of the sector, though I fully accept that my model is subjective and provisional. I admit that it can be helpful to ellide or conflate categories to suit some situations, for example when applying for funding. However, when advocating value in the public arena, I think we need a good deal more consistency and transparency of terminology.
The shape of the cultural sector is a matrix of two axes. Axis one is a spectrum from:
- the preservation of cultural heritage
- through interpretations and reinventions of existing cultural forms or knowledge to
- the production or performance of the most novel and contemporary art at the other end of the spectrum.
Axis two is a spectrum from:
- public assets maintained by public funding for public good
- through practices with mixed economic practices, generating social/cultural and economic value
- right through to commercial creative industries at the other end.
One cultural organisation might map its activities all over this matrix, but many can place their core remit squarely in one area. You have to draw the line somewhere around the cultural sector, excluding for example natural heritage and sport, while acknowledging that some cultural organisations might include sport or nature in their remit. I include science interpretation in the cultural sector.
The main concerns of the cultural advocacy campaigns are to protect the organisations or practices which are dependent on full public stewardship and to build more commercial capacities through public investment. As far as I understand from forgotten reading, and I would be happy to be corrected, there are more museums, libraries, archives, and sites of archaeological, domestic and industrial heritage in the public sector than there are arts organisations (excluding individual artists from that count). I’m not promoting one part of the cultural sector over any other, as I’ve worked in and am passionate about all of the parts. I mention the size of the MLA/heritage to suggest that it isn’t a small niche area that is easy to overlook.
The research reports, newspaper articles, blogposts and conference speeches by the main cultural advocates tend to do one of three things:
- Use the term ‘arts’ to denote the wider cultural sector, referring to non-arts practice under the arts umbrella
- Use the term ‘cultural sector’ (or ‘culture’) but then also use the term ‘arts’ interchangeably without acknowledging that arts are a subset of culture.
- Use the term ‘arts’ or ‘culture’ but only focus on the arts, where it might serve their case better by referring to other aspects of the cultural sector.
I should point out that there are some exceptions, where care is taken to be precise, inclusive and consistent. These include the Cultural Learning Alliance (currently asking for definitions of cultural learning), and the Collections Trust.
To summarise in cod maths terms:
Arts + culture = culture ( – heritage) = nonsense
Culture = arts + heritage = makes sense
I’d be very grateful for comments and corrections.
I’m having a really confusing day, because almost everything on my To Do list, for several different projects, paid and unpaid, is to do with the review of the English National Curriculum and the role of culture and creativity in it. I’m contributing to the Cultural Learning Alliance response to the DfE consultation on the National Curriculum. I’ve been at a project pitch this morning about the role of art in Primary National Curriculae across the four home nations (and the fact that we have four National Curriculae, with culture & creativity placed differently in each, is confusing enough in itself). We’re about to start a project looking at how the review of the National Curriculum and changes to teacher training will affect provision of museum education. We’re also looking at how teachers network online to develop professional practice in the arts.
And now, in a very timely manner, I hear from the tweets of the RSA/ACE conference State of the Arts 2011 that Darren Henley has been asked to follow up his Henley Review of Music Education with a second review on cultural learning. The task of this next report seems confused as it was described in two ways; ‘how children can receive a solid cultural education’ and ‘defining creative education’. These scraps of information raise more than a few questions that I hope will soon be answered. Is this review intended as a diktat on the need for a Hirschian cultural canon, ensuring that children emerge from school knowing the story of their island nation and how it rests on the finest artefacts and ideas of human civilisation? Or is it intended to be a restatement of the value of creativity in education and for the economy, given Ed Vaizey’s talk today promoting a ‘creative ecology’ – a context in which value can be more rapidly propogated from the public and commercial creative sectors? Or, both?
The background to all this is the Government’s three priorities for cultural & creative education, which were stated to be: That every child should have access to a good music education, that every child should learn to sing, and that every child should have a solid cultural education. If we translate this to Science as a metaphor to explain why this is category-oddness, it would be like saying: To have a sound education in human biology (above all); to have a chance to conduct experiments in human biology; and to have a solid scientific education.
It might have been more sensible to review the whole domain first (‘a cultural education’) then to ensure the health of each subject which helps delivery of cultural learning, including music. Instead, the Government focused first on one particular artform and have assumed that lessons can be applied to all other domains of culture, as number 36 of recommendations for the Music Review is: “As suggested in the recent White Paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’, it is recommended that the lessons from this Review be applied to other areas of Cultural Education including Dance, Drama, Film, the Visual Arts, Museums, the Built Environment and Heritage.” (Notice, by the by, that literature, libraries and design are missing from this list.)
It would be interesting if they actually did extrapolate the lessons from the Music Review, although I doubt it would extend to pledging to spend £82.5 m spending on each area.
Is it possible to apply these lessons in similar ways to two distinctly different categories of culture: a) forms of art practice (including the histories of those practices) and b) institutions or environments in which we can experience culture and find their histories archived?
Is this about creative practice in schools or is it about the role of cultural organisations as service providers?
I welcome the fact of a review of cultural learning, and in particular I like the fact that it is embracing the MLA & heritage sectors alongside the Arts to consider cultural and creative learning in a broad way. This is essential in the light of the merger of the MLA into ACE, and may be a great opportunity to consider consolidation of infrastructure to serve providers and schools. I think it is possible to consider creative learning and cultural partnerships in synthesis, as long as care is taken not to conflate them. The danger is that the terms of the report will use music as its starting point, and open out to describe ‘the arts’, without addressing the cross-curricular role of the nation’s extraordinary cultural and heritage resources. So, despite welcoming this news, I’m concerned about its scope. It seems not to be a neutral consultancy exercise but an extrapolation of lessons from a synecdoche (music) to the whole (culture), in order to generate a neat statement about the need for cultural knowledge.
Moreover, what kind of power will this statement hold if the arts become non-statutory subjects in the new National Curriculum and if the capacity for delivering cultural learning beyond the classroom is diminished by cuts? I think that’s another blogpost.
If I didn’t have family in Croydon I would never want to visit there again. Why? Because of its unremittingly brutal office buildings and its soul destroying shopping centre? No, not that. Because its Conservative Council has seen fit to shut its Clocktower museum, its David Lean Cinema, its cultural halls and galleries and six of its libraries. It will become devoid of public provision of culture, a wasteland.
My family members who live there can’t afford and don’t like to travel into the centre of London. They are interested in art, craft, history, film and music. Actually, they’re not just interested. These activities are their lifeblood. These things make them happy, inspired and inspiring. The teens are bright because their heads and hearts are full of culture. Yes, some of this came from TV and some of it is not what all would recognise as ‘culture’, but much of it came from family visits to museums, libraries and concerts in Croydon.
What will Croydon’s people have now to sustain their learning and wellbeing? Perhaps not much more than office work to earn the money they spend in the ever expanding shops. What kind of community will Croydon be? Perhaps not much more than a collection of houses with a few public meeting places that lack the intergenerational, communal, safe and diverse qualities of cultural centres.
Croydon is not just a tiny suburb smidged on the edge of London. It covers a vast area and is London’s largest borough with a population of nearly 350,000. The nearest cultural provision elsewhere is very thinly spread, with small museums and arts centres in some rural towns in Surrey. The outer suburbs of South London are extremely lacking in visitor destinations and major venues.
What makes this cut so frustrating is that it saves only £1.5 million a year, when the Council is spending £450 million on new offices for itself. They may also have to repay almost £1 million to the HLF who funded the refurbishment of the Clocktower. There will also be losses, much more difficult to quantify but still very real, in the provision of effective educational and social services which make use of all these cultural assets. The public were consulted on this cut, the public said they wanted to keep their cultural services, but the Council have decided not to respect their wishes.