There is too much gobbledegook and bland generality in Ed Vaizey’s new statement of government policy for arts and culture. It lacks the focus of Jennie Lee’s white paper of 1965
Half a century after the last white paper on the arts, Ed Vaizey, the government’s culture minister, has just published a successor. The white paper of 1965, by the Labour arts minister Jennie Lee, was Britain’s first expression of a national cultural policy. It makes interesting reading now: both for what has been built on her vision, and for what remains undone.
Lee aimed to make the arts available to the many, not just the few, and in all parts of the country. She thought the state had a moral duty to help artists nurture, not squander, their talents. She wrote: “In any civilised community the arts and associated amenities, serious or comic, light or demanding, must occupy a central place.
The omissions in the new document are glaring. For a white paper that – commendably, as far as it goes – supports the principle of access to the arts from all parts of the community, and rightly points to a worrying lack of black and minority ethnic people working in the arts, it has little apart from platitudes to offer on the role of education. And yet, as the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value pointed out in 2015, there has been a slide in arts teaching in the classroom in recent years. But it is in schools, as Lee pointed out, that the key to bringing art to everyone lies.
Nor is Mr Vaizey honest about the threat to England’s cultural landscape from local authority cutbacks, which have been forced by the reduction in grants from central government. Instead, he promotes the foundation of a “Commercial Academy for Culture to improve and spread commercial expertise in the cultural sectors”. (In a document full of three-letter acronyms, the abbreviation of this body was not emphasised.) Tellingly, the paper also gives barely a mention to the vital role the BBC has to play as a promulgator of the arts and culture, an employer of artists and a driver of growth in the creative industries. The culture white paper is both a missed opportunity and an unworthy successor to Jennie Lee.
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