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8 April 2010

Why the arts matter

Politicians are right to make this an election issue.

By Yo Zushi

You’d expect the tabloids to belittle the government’s commitment to the arts, but from the Guardian it just sounds weird. In a blog headlined “Don’t vote for ‘arts policy'”, Jonathan Jones argues: “At these kinds of times, when the nation’s future is held in the electoral balance, you realise exactly how silly and trivial the media fiction of ‘the arts’ actually is.” He concludes his piece with the dismissive assertion that: “There are bigger things at stake than a new paint job for the National Theatre lobby.”

Do the arts really amount to “the cultural comforts of the middle classes”, as Jones says? Is the issue so trivial? I don’t think so, and neither do the politicians.

In 2001, the then culture secretary Chris Smith wrote (PDF) that “our creative industries . . . are a real success story, and a key element in today’s knowledge economy”. These sectors, of course, are sustained by the “lifeblood” of what Smith called “original creativity”, which in turn depends upon a healthy attitude to the arts in Westminster to fund institutions, programmes and so forth.

The costs are small, especially when set against their rewards — the UK’s major museums and galleries produce annual profits of £1.5bn; music brings in £5bn a year and theatre £2.6bn. According to Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian, when Liverpool was the European capital of culture in 2008, “£800m was generated for the local economy and 27 per cent more visitors were attracted than in previous years”.

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This is why the first British Inspiration Awards, scheduled to take place on 23 April in London, has the vocal endorsement of all three major political parties. “I am enormously proud of the talented people in this country who, through their creative and entrepreneurial gifts, illuminate their lives and enrich ours,” said Gordon Brown, while David Cameron offered: “We should be proud of that heritage. I welcome the opportunity this event brings to celebrate our many creative successes.”

In purely fiscal terms, the arts sector is a major employer and earner for the UK. It’s more important than ever to insist upon its upkeep.