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Night at the Museum

As the guardians of the souls of our communities, local cultural institutions must fight and adapt i

Remember the turn of the millennium? An era associated with shiny new buildings and the launch of major gallery projects across the country, when culture was used as an engine for regeneration. Alongside the big-money projects, there was a demand from government and funders that cultural institutions demonstrate an impact on "real people". No longer could high art be ghettoised, now that it was financed through the Lottery. Culture had to provide lessons on how to be good citizens. Diversity and accessibility became all the rage, with museum and gallery managers filling in byzantine funding applications on the benefit to society of the arts, and launching project after project that had only a passing connection to collections or core business.

The vogue for "citizenship" now appears to have passed. How committed most institutions were anyway to working with communities is questionable. Community work became an exercise in ticking boxes, when we had to take on board that not everyone believed in the intrinsic value of the arts, and funding was dependent on our ability to demonstrate instrumental value.

The initial wave of such work came broadly in two forms. First, there was a swath of initiatives connected with people's entitlement to culture. At their core was the message that mere association with great art could open the smallest mind. Wheel in a group of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, sit them in front of the right painting and their lives would be enhanced. Never mind the irrelevance to their lives; never mind that they doubtless had a number of cultures in which they already participated - this was all about ticking the right boxes while not actually doing anything very different.

Second, there were the press-worthy projects; those usually launched from the marketing department. These were often petitions or campaigns, designed to have broad social impact, built on (often literally) flashy websites. After the money had disappeared into the wallets of web developers, they usually failed to have much impact on anyone at all. But they looked good in the annual report.

Return to elitism

With a return of the notion of excellence, the changing atmosphere seems to have been met with a sense of relief that we can go back to doing what we've always done. Community projects and outreach work can be safely abandoned. Funding is no longer reliant on such things, and the prospect of a public school-­educated Tory government suggests elitism will be the new Stygian hue. In financial terms, things haven't changed, however. The funding for major museum works is still there and is seemingly unconnected to the needs of much of the population, if the recent work on the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is anything to go by. Over £60m spent and an aim for only 500,000 visitors a year? The cash might have been mostly provided by private trusts and funds, but it demonstrates the irrelevance of such work to the majority of ordinary people.

In the likely event of a new government taking power next year that is committed to public spending cuts, the major national museums will be fine. The money, whether from charitable trusts or from government departments, will continue to flow to them. The funding - though lessening - for major work will also still be there. Rich men will still want to have gardens named after them; exhibitions of treasures stolen during imperial conquest will still need the imprimatur of the social elite. But for regional museums, for the locally funded and supported, even for university museums, the only likely impact is straitened circumstances.

Yet there's a trick being missed here. When funding cuts come, they will come first to the arts - unless the sector deploys a counter argument. In the world outside, the recession is already biting hard. And, over and above the debate about instrumental value, galleries and museums have a vital contribution to make in helping improve the lives of their neighbours, their funders (through taxation and Lottery tickets) and their audience.
This is especially true in times of recession. The impact on jobs and on the future levels of aspiration among young people is beginning to register. But the impact on the health and well-being of the average man, woman and child has barely begun to take effect. Recessions are about illness, depression and the ending of hopes, as much as they are about the economy.

Museums and galleries have a duty and an opportunity in all this. Publicly funded neutral spaces, guardians of the long-term souls of their communities - there are no better institutions to tackle the loss of hope implied by recession. And this contribution is immensely valuable in terms of dealing with the long-term impacts of recession on individuals, communities and the economy as a whole.

Arguing the case

It's time, then, to declare a wider purpose for the museum and gallery sector. At first sight, this may seem unlikely to catch the eye of the incoming government, which will be aiming for cuts first and a review of their long-term impact later. But the worst thing that culture could do now would be to withdraw into its shell, worry about its future funding and ignore the wider issues affecting society. That would achieve nothing. Worse, it would reinforce the arguments of those who see the sector as first in line when cuts to public spending are mooted. But the museum and gallery sector could offer an impressive bang for its buck if it presents its ­arguments correctly.

Projects that are to make a real difference need to learn from the mistakes of the box-­ticking era. There needs to be real, long-term engagement with communities. These cannot be one-week, one-month or six-month-long projects, where the participants are waved goodbye to at the door and never thought of again. They need to be co-created with the people involved, rather than made in a marketing office and thrown out in the general direction of a specific target "problem". And they need to be entered into with honesty and passion.

At the heart of museum community work, when done well, is actually a very Conservative philosophy - self-help. It's about giving people back control of their lives, allowing them to ­explore the issues facing them and their communities and to make the sometimes difficult choices only people on the ground can really make. Offering this sort of space, this sort of ­independent and committed involvement in developing solutions for individuals and communities, could and should be the focus of ­museum community engagement. This is about ensuring that an audience for galleries and museums survives. More than that, it's about ensuring that our cities, our economy and our cultures survive. But it's also a way of ensuring that the sector has a real role to play in helping the country to get back on its feet.

Vaughan Allen is the chief executive of Urbis

Making an entrance

According to Mark Taylor, director of the Museums Association, 1979 was a disastrous year: "There was an attempt by the Thatcher government to follow the American model - more freedom for museums, less control from above . . . it was every man for himself."

The genesis of New Labour precipitated a sea change: "They had a greater understanding of the role culture plays in all aspects of life. There was a push for museums to be part of government agendas, and it meant they could carry out a wider range of activities."

Labour also abolished entrance fees to 20 major national institutions. Visitor numbers skyrocketed and free museums have become cemented in the public's mind as an inalienable right, something an incoming Conservative government would be loath to dismantle.

Similarly, since 2003 the "Renaissance in the Regions" programme has provided almost £300m in funding for local museums, but its continuation beyond 2010 is far less certain. Taylor, however, sees the new generation of Tories as far less doctrinaire about public funding of the arts: "All indications are that the Conservatives understand the multifaceted nature of museums better than the Thatcher government."

Another good sign is that, in line with the recession, visitor numbers are booming: "As life seems more depressing, people turn to cultural pursuits, which is good news for us," says Taylor.

Stephen Morris

 

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This article first appeared in the 23 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Green Heroes and Villains

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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