The UK Government’s long-awaited Culture White Paper was released last week. It is over 50 years since the sector was last given the limelight in this way, so it was with baited breath that we nervously hit the download button.
The message which runs through the paper is certainly positive and upbeat. It talks of a “bold new vision” for the UK, with culture and the arts “at the heart of everyday life” – stirring stuff, even if we would have expected nothing less. It was still good to see, in black and white, a commitment to: make culture accessible to everyone; boost its role in forging the identity of towns and cities across all regions; capitalise on its value on the international stage and safeguard its long-term financial security.
Of particular note was the confirmation of the £30m Cultural Protection Fund for heritage in global conflict zones which is due to launch in late spring and to be managed by the British Council. Of even greater note was….wait for it…..the Government’s promise that “[S]ubject to legislation we will ratify the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its two Protocols”. Dare we believe that this will happen sometime soon? As we reported in June last year, Culture Secretary John Whittingdale announced a commitment to ratify but no indication of the timeframe was given then – or now. The pointed reference to “legislation” is somewhat ominous. As long ago as 2004, an undertaking was given to “ratify when time allowed” and here we are over a decade later. We would perhaps be forgiven for not holding our breath on this one quite yet.
Closer to home, the White Paper announced a detailed review of museums, covering local, regional and national institutions, with a special focus on digital services and collection storage. The review is welcomed by the Museums’ Association which has committed to working with government “to ensure that it is as wide ranging as possible and addresses the challenges and solutions that local museums and their communities need.” And there will certainly be challenges ahead as the public funding cuts continue to bite.
Notably, the promises of great things to come for the culture sector are not accompanied by major new funding streams – in contrast to the previous Culture White Paper (in 1965) which saw an increase in the Arts Council’s grant by 30 per cent. The shadow culture secretary said arts and culture faced a “real threat” with “[T]he Arts Council’s core grant in aid … cut by 36% between 2010 and 2015,” and the requirement for DCMS to “find its share of £3.5bn of further cuts in 2019-20 to make the chancellor’s budget plans add up.”
On a more positive note, the Government encourages the sector to pursue fruitful relationships with its “many generous private donors, whether businesses, trusts, foundations or individual philanthropists”, urging us to “talk more about the mutual benefits of such partnerships, and how they make an enduring difference to cultural organisations and to public life”.
All in all, the central messages of the White Paper are positive and uplifting ones. While the devil is in the detail, there appears to be good reason for hope on a number of fronts. In the words of the bard, who features prominently in the report, it being the 400th anniversary of his death this year: “True hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings: Kings it makes gods, and meaner creatures kings.”*
*Quotation taken from speech of Richmond, about to go into battle, in Shakespeare’s Richard III, Act V, Scene 2.
Photograph: Raymond Bloomer as Richmond in King Richard III, Plymouth Theatre, Broadway, 1920: By Vandamm Studio, New York (Billy Rose Theatre Collection) (NYPL Digital Gallery) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons