It didn’t take long to work out that, where her predecessor as Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden had no interest in the arts and wouldn’t have noticed if culture disappeared completely, Nadine Dorries was far more aggressively negative. The lady always gave the impression that rather than failing to notice culture, she had a strong antipathy towards it.
As an example, the former Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport worked tirelessly in her efforts to destroy the BBC and Channel 4 during what was always going to be a relatively short tenure, as she eyed a more senior role. She was replaced by Michelle Donelan a couple of prime ministers ago, but is still wreaking havoc.
Arts Council England has revealed that the novelist turned minister issued specific instructions to take action against those arty types who regularly received the kind of critical reviews than she could only dream about.
Instead of merely withdrawing all funding from the arts, which must have been tempting to the new Chancellor, in her equivalent to Boris Johnson’s long-awaited departure honours list on which she featured, the future Lady Dorries has taken pot-shots at many of the country’s finest artistic establishments under the guise of “levelling up”, which could easily be confused with dumbing down.
In its latest funding (or non-funding) round, Arts Council England has shifted money from London to the regions and Central London to outer suburbs.
Their conclusions are truly bizarre, with intoBodmin (a community arts organisation in an old library building in the heart of Cornwall) receiving more money than the English National Opera, the Donmar Warehouse and Hampstead put together, all defunded along with several other worthy, high-profile theatres and artistic institutions.
Culture vultures might also question why the National Football Museum and Blackpool Illuminations find themselves enriched at the expense of genuine arts organisations.
In moving money from the capital, the funding body wilfully failed to recognise that, as a result of centuries of entrenchment, much of the finest work has navigated itself towards the area with the greatest population and, very relevantly given the current economic crisis, most of the tourist trade.
This view is supported by a recent survey and report from Queen Mary University of London, which notes, “it is a false economy to avoid arts investment or ignore cultural policy, because this matters to a lot of voters.”
Can it really be good for the nation in effect to close down the English National Opera by removing all of its funding? The sop to those involved is a much smaller sum conditional on the company moving out of London, possibly to Manchester. Does Manchester want an opera? Not according to its mayor, Andy Burnham.
Even if it did, the tourists and London-based opera lovers are unlikely to want to make a long trip, even longer at the moment thanks to the stellar efforts of Avanti West Coast, which can barely now call itself a train service.
Arts Council England seems to have developed a particular hatred of opera, since Glyndebourne has also lost its core funding and the Welsh National Opera has been devastated while the jewel in the crown in Covent Garden still receives a grant but reduced by 9%.
Theatres have fared little better, with the nation’s National Theatre losing 5% in cash terms which equates to 1/6 of its funding when inflation is taken into account.
These cuts will have a devastating effect on the industry and this will inevitably lead to mass redundancies. It is hard to believe that was the government’s intention but, if not, they need to think through the consequences before taking further unwise decisions.
While there are many more losers in this lottery to decide on the allocation of Lottery money, inevitably others will be winners.
A cynic might question whether part of the motivation was to move funds from a city that is generally no fan of the current government to areas now defined as “red wall” and “blue wall”, where it perceives that a bit of good news is desperately needed with an election two years away. Without wishing to generalise, many looking through the list of recipients might come to the conclusion that dumbing down is the order of the day.
While many recipients are worthy, a large number appear more geared to community support than artistic excellence. That is very commendable but should not be funded from an arts budget at the expense of some of the United Kingdom’s cultural crown jewels.
We all understand that in this tricky financial climate, there isn’t enough money to go around. However, killing off major artistic institutions is likely to backfire, since in the fullness of time this will cost UK plc dearly, as exports diminish and the soft power that we currently drive by exporting our finest cultural achievements slowly tails off. It is also bad news for the TV and movie industries, which so often pick up talent trained on and around stages.
There is also considerable irony in that ENO and the NT have both been leaders in community outreach work and, if I were running either, the obvious place to start cutting might be expensive touring productions and work with schools etc.
It may take years or even generations for these mistakes to be remedied and, in the meantime, anyone who loves culture and the arts can do nothing but look on in incredulity and mourn.
The future was already looking grim for many artistic organisations, following 2½ years of pandemic-related pain and the advent of a recession that the Bank of England believes will last for years rather than months.
Theatre folk are hardy souls but even they may begin to despair unless some ministering angel or fairy godmother turns up to save the day.