The new Victorians

Art - Peter Jenkinson celebrates a resurgence of interest in the British art scene

There is something extraordinary happening in the British arts scene at the moment: a tidal wave of new and refurbished museums and galleries opening across London; one million visitors to Tate Modern in 47 days; the first ever Japanese tourists in Walsall; a call from the chairman of the Arts Council, Gerry Robinson, for £100m of additional government investment in the arts, and a call from Lord Rothschild for £400m of investment in regional museums and galleries to make up for generations of neglect. So what exactly is going on?

Despite the dreary, outdated prejudices of some of our burnt-out critics, tabloid hacks and politicians from all parties, it is clear that the arts, including museums and galleries, have never been more interesting or more popular and have never played such a significant role in national life as they do today. Recent MORI research for the Arts Council showed huge public support for the arts, with 78 per cent believing that the arts play a valuable role in the life of the nation, and 95 per cent believing that children should have more opportunities to experience the arts at school.

In these opening years of a new century, it is clear that a profound shift in attitudes and behaviour is occurring which will have a major cultural-political impact in the years to come. In considering the arts, we need to think again and reject outmoded cliches. This is especially the case in the regions of Britain where, despite virtual invisibility in the national media, there is much excitement in contemporary cultural life and production. We are witnessing pioneering and sophisticated work in deve- loping new and active audiences for the arts in gritty contexts. There is a rapidly growing sense of aspiration, energy and collectivity, and a rejection of centralisation and hoary metropolitan condescension.

In the closing decades of the 19th century, as the final phase of the programmatic Victorian municipal civic mission (which encompassed sewers, hospitals, schools and free libraries), local authorities, especially in the Midlands and the north of England, chose to ennoble or dignify their communities by erecting museums and galleries. Similarly, over a century later, Britain's cultural map has dramatically altered, as previously marginalised locations have demanded a more prominent role in national and international, as well as local, life. Who, for example, even a few years ago, could have imagined significant new museums and galleries of international quality in such uncelebrated places as Salford, Gateshead, Milton Keynes, Dundee, Sunderland or Walsall?

Such exciting development is so far geographically patchy, and thus claims for a regional renaissance may be a little premature. But there is no doubt that a new regional spirit is challenging the long-accepted cultural-political dynamics of this supposedly meritocratic age, raising new questions - about hierarchies, cultural access, funding, governance and accountability.

"Regional inclusion" ought to be as significant an issue as social inclusion. We need to create a more holistic understanding of the arts infrastructure of this country, and capitalise on a more sympathetic and harmonious political and funding system. Much of what is happening at local and regional level is the result of joined-up thinking, in which still cash-starved local authorities are entering imaginative partnerships - with education and health agencies, the private sector and local people, along with funding bodies, such as the National Lottery - in a clear belief that museums and galleries and the arts in general can play a profound role in the sustenance and, indeed, revival of communities and economies.

What has happened in Walsall is a good case in point. The New Art Gallery Walsall combines historic collections, contemporary visual arts and education and children's facilities in a £21m building of astonishing architectural quality. It seems to have captivated the public imagination. The visitor target for the first year to this proudly free-admission gallery is set to be exceeded after only five months. While such numbers are unprecedented, the range of this new audience is especially gratifying. Who says excellence and access cannot coexist?

Developments such as Walsall - world-class, of international specification and committed to showing only the very best of the contemporary visual arts - make the clear, irrefutable case for yet further investment in the arts.

Gerry Robinson's call for the government to "have the courage to take the biggest step forward for a very long time in the cultural development of the people of this country, and give us the means to make this happen", is not only timely; it is a critical reminder of the huge success to date, but also of the scale of the task ahead. The potential is huge.

Peter Jenkinson is the director of the New Art Gallery Walsall