So the manifestos are out, and now we know what we're working with. We had to wait until Monday to see what the current government has planned for the arts, although the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats had both produced culture "mini-manifestos" some time ago. I get the distinct impression that the Labour government is worried that the arts lobby has been courted a little too effectively by the other parties over the past few months, and so felt the need for a sizeable dose of culture in their main manifesto. No bad thing.
The main point of note is . . . that there are few points of note. The parties' approaches to the arts and their key pledges are for the most part eerily similar in substance. All three have pledged to boost philanthropic giving to the arts by making it easier to give (though all three gave similar promises in 2005). Disappointingly the government is still promising to 'review' rather than pledge specific tax incentives to encourage the lifetime donation of artworks, like the other parties have - a boost to those of us who have been pressing the case for new incentives for some time.
Our national museums and galleries get a couple of direct pledges from all three parties - to maintain free admission, and more autonomy to fundraise and build endowments. One hopes though that a promise of 'more financial autonomy' isn't a cover for making cuts to museums' government grants.
There are promises to give public institutions (not just galleries, but perhaps schools and hospitals) new rights to borrow works of art from the 13,500-strong Government Art Collection, and this would be a great boost - particularly to regional galleries. And it's good to see the Conservatives and Lib Dems in particular talking of using culture to build influence overseas, recognising the importance of the arts to departments outside DCMS.
So where are the differences? The National Lottery provides one - while there are promises all round of more money being passed to arts and heritage, the methods differ. The current government promises simply to return the diverted proportion back to the good causes; the Conservatives want to restore the Lottery to its original four aims; while the Lib Dems say they'll change the way the Lottery is taxed, generating as much as an extra £270 million extra funding for good causes. The Art Fund had asked for all three.
The gaping hole is the clear avoidance of promises to protect core funding, although no-one seriously expected this. What really stands out are the similarities in what's on offer: the promises made (if kept) are incredibly helpful, but merely tinkering around the edges if core funds are slashed.
Stephen Deuchar is Director of the Art Fund
Read the manifesto promises on the arts here.