The message was really less about the value of culture and more about the value of a mixed economy to fund culture. He talked about the way the Government has nurtured a mix of the American model (keep culture private) and the European model (public subsidy), enabling a successful balance between excellence and populism. He gave examples of how this balance and mix means that excellence can become popular and popular culture can be good quality.
It was in part a celebration of how Government funding has supported a great widening of access, a boost for arts education and an embrace of cultural diversity. The director of Tyne & Wear museums said later that the Renaissance in the Regions funding had enabled a 7000% increase in its outreach activities! The value of culture was mainly ascribed to two features: a) projecting a cutting-edge and creative face to the outside world, helping to make London the creative capital of the world, attract tourists and win the Olympiad and b) ‘achieving what Government finds difficult’ – social cohesion through explorations of identity politics. You might argue that the Cultural sector achieves the latter because it pays less heed to territorial boundaries. People who work in the arts don’t think of ‘us’ facing an ‘outside world’ so it can often feel strange when Government initiatives or policies ask you to ‘promote the face of Britain’ or ‘define our national heritage’.
The speech was also a celebration of the transformation of the cultural sector into the cultural industries. There was a suggestion that we need to do more to imaginatively engage private funders, not so much in the spirit of Corporate Social Responsibility sponsorship, more as an investment deal. The suggestion was neatly complemented with references to the ‘audacious leaps of imagination’ and risk-taking that us cultural types are capable of. Dame Vivien Duffield said that Blair had not paid enough tribute to private sponsors, even though he had emphasised private funding. She may be right in that private funders are not always motivated as venture capitalists, and they may prefer tributes and evidence of public good over hard returns and a percentage stake. The chair of Culture South East said that they had tried to get venture capital for the cultural economy but struggled because financiers said that there was not enough potential for knowledge transfer. The director of Visiting Arts made a useful point that more could be done to unlock funding from other Government sources, not just private funders, for example where the arts can enrich intercultural dialogue.