This is a combined reflection on two events in which Ed Vaizey, Minister for Communications, Culture and the Creative Industries, was a central feature. The first was the Big Link Up from the Cultural Learning Alliance, mentioned in previous posts. The second was organised by the Collections Trust, yesterday at the ICA, a more intimate event in which Nick Poole posed his own and our questions about the future of collections-based cultural organisations.
The Cultural Learning Alliance event involved the whole cultural sector (with a bias towards performing arts), with a focus on the cultural offer to children and young people. The Collections Trust event was focused on organisations with cultural collections, with no particular focus on functions or audiences, though with a slight bias towards digital innovation. But the themes of discussion were very similar at each event because when it boils down to it, the Government has a very simple message for the cultural sector, and the cultural sector finds itself in a very complex situation. So at both events, the Minister repeated what we already knew: This country’s culture is wonderful, public engagement in culture is very important, but there is no money, we have to face that fact, the cultural sector more than others should be expected to be imaginative in facing this challenge, we have to consolidate and collaborate, use digital services to be efficient, work with small businesses to innovate, ask bigger businesses to fund us. I would say ‘and so on’, but really, that was it in terms of the simple message. Now, for a bit more detail about the questions and responses of the distinct audiences at each event.
I hope the Honorable Minister will forgive my familiarity in shortening his name to Ed in this account. It’s to save time.
I’ve interspersed my challenges throughout, and I hope my opinions are distinctly expressed.
The Cultural Learning Alliance Big Link up
I’m very optimistic about the Cultural Learning Alliance as I feel it’s the main opportunity to bring together the organisations that drive policy and fund cultural and creative learning, to ensure the kind of efficient delivery we need. However, I was disappointed by this event, and interestingly, Ed Vaizey said to the Collections Trust audience that he felt it had misfired. I think it misfired because the audience were so aware of what’s about to hit in terms of funding cuts, but the structure of the event didn’t enable positive problem-solving together. We were assured it would use digital media to be interactive, but the audience’s submissions in response to three questions were nowhere visible, the chat system disappeared after the event, and there was no mobile signal or wifi in the room. Because of the tension about funding cuts, Ed was led to accuse the audience of caring more about the agenda of our cultural organisations that want to be saved than the needs of children and young people. This didn’t go down well, as those in attendance care more about people being changed by culture than saving their own skins, and they passionately believe that culture needs space and sustenance.
The tone of the event was characterised by a defence of the arts and their intrinsic value, and Ed Vaizey’s (and Mick Water’s) efforts to get the panel to define and quantify the value of cultural learning were resisted. This would have been so useful given that the DCMS plan for cultural learning focuses on music (instrumental opportunities, singing, and a general cultural education), showing a lack of awareness of the breadth including libraries, the built & natural environment, museums, creative science, digital creativity and so on. In attempting to broaden the definition of cultural learning himself he he only listed some performing art practices and then focused entirely on the Henley Review and music education. In my view, music education was established as healthy by David Miliband’s Music Manifesto and the resulting initiatives. But now starting to affect its health are the cuts, affecting local music services and more. It doesn’t need a review, it needs some protected funding.
He wants to see more consolidation yet on the other hand he wants to see a ‘thousand flowers bloom’. For example, he said if he had asked Nick Hornby to set up his (wonderful-sounding) monster shop for creative writing, he would have run a mile. But to be clear-eyed about it, in my view, there are a great number of extraordinary literacy projects for disadvantaged young people, without wealthy celebrities to give them media coverage, which are losing public funding. How do we ensure that such vanity projects link up to form a full cultural offer meeting needs all over the UK?
He announced that he wants to establish a cross ministerial group about cultural learning, which is excellent to hear. However, I was slightly concerned that he emphasised this involving the Department of Work and Pensions, to ensure exploration of links between culture and employability.
The panellists took turns to give responses, some more pertinent to the political situation than others.
Mick Waters was excellent. He expressed concern about the Education White Paper (The Importance of Teaching) with its ‘high stakes testing, narrow accountabilty, regressive approach to curriculum’. He asked ‘what will DCMS do to ensure that learning is enriched in the face of this?’ Ed’s response was to defend Michael Gove as passionate about rigour in learning.
Shan MacLennan explained that at the SBC, their overall concern is well-being. The Government has decided to have a happiness index, but what do they think is the role of culture in that? He agreed, thankfully, that culture should be front and centre of the happiness index.
Andrew Nairne asked: what’s the most compelling argument you’ve heard to convince you of the value of Cultural Learning? Ed said that he was passionate about it, and that he prefers the intrinsic rather than the instrumental argument for cultural learning. This belief in culture is encouraging. However, I worry that in upholding only intrinsic value he might not listen to or extend work to develop better ways to measure the value of culture (e.g. this report published by DCMS this week.)
John Knell asked him: Why is there no statement about Cultural Learning in the business plan? Ed said that it’s not right to set up an organisation to do Cultural Learning, just give them a cheque and abandon them. (I think he must be referring to CCE.) He wants to see more localism, with Government just providing overview and support. It seems to me there is room for a great deal more conversation about how this happens in a context where he won’t ensure that cultural services are statutory in local authorities.
There were some voices that we must face up to the cuts and thrive in austerity. I agree partially with that but also agree with the voices that cuts are happening too fast, without a strategic overview of need, and stripping assets in the process.
Someone from the floor raised an important question about a unified digital infrastructure for cultural learning. I was pleased to hear this as I’ve worked on such a strategy for ACE. I was a bit disappointed that Andrew Nairne didn’t embrace the question more fully. He responded that the arts is not about the web, it’s about live experience, and John Knell reinforced this view. My counterpoint to this, which I know Andrew would agree with, is a) that Cultural Learning is not just the arts, but knowledge b) digital can enhance the exploration and production of the live experience and c) the questioner was not suggesting delivering art online but information services, training, using data to inform planning and so on. In my view, the use of digital networked information is undeveloped and could be extremely useful in facing the big challenge.
I’ll just finish with some more suggestions from panel and the floor about ways forward:
Every school should make a formal link with 3 organisations representing arts, science and history. (I hope the CLA’s Cultural Learning Ambassadors will take this broad approach.)
Every arts organisation should get behind the Arts Award.
We need some quality assurance brokers.
We need some proper funding for innovation.
The Collections Trust at the ICA
This was an odd situation. Nick Poole has extraordinary insight into how the cultural sector and its policy bodies might better organise and innovate, yet he was in the position of asking the Minister. Ed Vaizey didn’t have the answers, he could only outline the constraints and ask us to find imaginative ways through. It might have been interesting if the tables had been turned and Ed Vaizey had asked Nick (and us) for ideas. Maybe next time?
Q: Museums and the Arts Council
Nick asked how he might ensure the MLA sector don’t feel they are swallowed up by the Arts Council. Will it become a Culture Council to reflect their interests? Ed felt the move to ACE was positive because it has an overview and a strong regional presence. He didn’t understand the question about a Culture Council, as he felt that MLAs are a strong fit with the arts, and didn’t see why it should have to change wholly. Confusingly, he explained how he hadn’t wanted to dilute the identity of ACE by moving the Film Council to ACE, which is to be merged with the BFI to create a body more strongly focused on the creative industries. He implied that ACE would therefore be less about creative industries and more about public engagement in culture. (At the same time, he wants the whole cultural sector to be more entrepreneurial.)
I’m actually quite positive about MLA being absorbed into ACE, because there is so much wasteful duplication. However, I do think bringing libraries, archives and science and history museums into the mix means that the agendas and naming of ACE will need to change. ACE’s 10 year strategy will need to be re-released to reflect them, I believe. Jane Finnis later pointed out the irony that ACE had a clear strategy yet its arts organisations tended to be poor at strategy, whereas MLA (and museum sector overall, because fractured) has a poor strategy, yet the museums themselves tend to be excellent at strategy.
Q: Nick asked about his position of support for investing in digital culture to ensure a democratisation of access. Ed says he’s passionate about this and sees massive opportunities for participation. (It would have been wonderful to have been able to do a 5 minute video of all the future potential of Open Culture at that point, as I wasn’t sure he was fully aware of these massive opportunities from the examples he gave of what inspired him.)
Q: Nick asked how he felt about cuts to local authorities threatening cultural services first and foremost. ‘Are you happy to see die what’s an important part of our industry?’ This was the most disappointing answer (on the day that the Localism Bill was going through): Ed said that central Government should let LAs decide what they want. He respects the right of local councils to make decisions themselves because he sympathises with them having to make such difficult decisions. He can’t make culture a statutory service. He said ‘we can advise’ but then on the evidence I wonder whether his advice would be useful. He advised that Local Authorities should talk to HLF about whether they can fund their cultural services before they are cut. (Unless HLF changes its processes entirely, and makes them less fair, this would be impossible.)
He recommended that we consider forming consortia to digitise collections and create shared websites. Of course, this is what we have been doing, or trying to do. But there is much more to it than that. Also, the slow progress we’ve been making towards a really strong national strategy of digital culture is now in danger of being derailed.
Q: Nick asked him if he would you consider a national museums strategy? His reply worried me just as Nick’s question worried him: “I’m a bit worried if you think we don’t have one. We have clear positions on most of the major issues. We don’t believe local authorities should have cultural services as statutory. We want to protect free admission. We want ACE to take on MLA. Isn’t that enough of a strategy?” He seemed to be denying any knowledge of the history at DCMS. For years, DCMS had been working towards, or intending to produce, a national museums strategy, to deal with a range of intractable issues, to clarify muddy relationships between nationals and regionals, to establish clear terms by which national museums are custodians for local authorities to help protect the nation’s valued collections, to modernise terms of funding agreements and so on. We absolutely still need this. Nick outlined some problems that occur with the lack of such a strategy but Ed asserted that ‘things are OK as they are and we’ve made our decision’. Basically, national and local museums will rely on the goodwill of ACE to ensure that they are drawn into strategic partnerships and not neglected, and he has faith in that goodwill.
There were five questions from the floor, but I’ll just pick up on two:
Jane Finnis of Culture24 asked: How can the DCMS work more substantially with DfE to co-ordinate and deliver cultural learning in efficient digital ways, for example, now that BECTA (and its planned digital content ecosytem) has been axed?
He said he was going to talk to Michael Gove now, and would mention it. I hope he did!
Jack Gilbert asked: Given the vitality of engaging with local heritage for delivering social outcomes, could there be guidance from CLG to ensure that as we shift to ‘Big Society’, heritage has a place in localised and outsourced services?
Ed cited as helpful the Heritage Champions policy at English Heritage where one councillor in every Local Authority is supposed to be a heritage champion. He didn’t mention that English Heritage has had to axe its Outreach department (and probably other public engagement initiatives given their 30% cut.)