eipcp Policies European Cultural Policies 2015
08 2005

Don't Look Back in Anger

Rebecca Gordon Nesbitt

Rebecca Gordon Nesbitt




Despite a modicum of autonomy having been devolved to Scotland, Wales and (in times of peace) Northern Ireland, policy in the United Kingdom1 is still largely dictated by the central government at Westminster2 which, in turn, reflects the increasingly neo-liberal priorities of the Blair administration. In May, 2004, Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, published a discussion document which exemplified the New Labour vision of culture.3 Defending art from leftist charges of elitism, in language that sought to endear the culture sector, she argued for the recognition of the inherent worth of culture:

Too often politicians have been forced to debate culture in terms only of its instrumental benefits to other agendas – education, the reduction of crime, improvements in well-being – explaining – or, in some cases, apologising for – our investment in culture in terms of something else. In political and public discourse in this country we have avoided the more difficult approach of investigating, questioning and celebrating what culture actually does in and of itself.

In somewhat contradictory fashion, Jowell went on to argue that 'as a Culture Department we still have to deliver the utilitarian agenda and the measures of instrumentality that this implies ...'. Having thus paved the way for the sensitive instrumentalisation of art, she lauded its transformative potential. Exempting government from tackling the root causes of inequality, she appropriated culture as a tool in combating 'poverty of aspiration', which she identified as the main obstacle separating rich from poor, presumably on the basis that aspiration is all that is necessary to remove individuals from poverty. One of the few critical responses to this document decried the lack of acknowledgement of the critical potential of art:

... Jowell edges uncomfortably close to a new social mission for the arts ... What this leaves out – if not denies – is art's provocative role. Through much of the past 50 years, art has been properly concerned not to cement national identity but to question it. In that, it continued the great modernist project of 'making strange', of disrupting rather than confirming how we see the world and our place in it....4

Indeed, as we shall see, little understanding of criticality has been factored into state funding models. By examining as case studies the cultural policy of England and Scotland in the early years of the twenty-first century, it is possible to identify trends and, to some extent, predict the trajectories that culture will be forced to follow in the next decade.


Evidently believing culture to be a burgeoning area and one over which a relatively toothless Scottish Executive might exert some influence, First Minister of Scotland Jack McConnell asserted in 2003:

I believe we can now make the development of our creative drive, our imagination, the next major enterprise for our society. Arts for all can be a reality, a democratic right, and an achievement of the early 21st century.5

Three years earlier, Scotland's National Cultural Strategy6 had laid the foundations for policy North of the Border. Aside from the obvious use value of culture in consolidating national identity, one of the four main strategic objectives set out in this document was to 'realise culture's potential contribution to education, promoting inclusion and enhancing people's quality of life', presaging future instrumentalisation. When the time came for the 'arms length' funding bodies to implement policy, the Scottish Arts Council responded by including in its Corporate Plan (2004-2009) a consideration of the benefits of art within Education, Social Inclusion, Tourism and the Creative Industries. Of these, perhaps the biggest white elephant is social inclusion, a catch-all term for using the arts to improve health and wellbeing, while targeting minority ethnic communities and disabled people for participation in arts activities, on the understanding that:

Tackling the complex relationship between education, health and poverty is fundamental to a concerted and long-term effort to revitalise Scotland's economy and to improve the quality of life of all its communities. We know the arts play a crucial role in making Scotland a better place to live and work and in narrowing inequalities in society.7

For the Scottish Arts Council, increasing participation in the arts now takes precedence over supporting artists, with £43 million (57.8% of total budgets) being allocated for this purpose in 2005/06 in the hope that 'by 2006 [it will] increase the number of cultural programmes in areas of economic and social disadvantage and the numbers of partners engaged in supporting these programmes by 10% from a baseline set in 2003/04'.8 The adoption of this rhetoric caused sufficient concern within arts communities to prompt the formation of a group of unnamed artists and arts professionals, known as the Cultural Policy Collective, who published a pamphlet examining the premises of social inclusion and concluding that it is:

premised on the top-down 'democratisation' of culture, a process aimed at engaging members of 'excluded' groups in historically privileged cultural arenas. Such a policy neither reforms the existing institutional framework of culture, nor reverses a process of damaging privatisation. Instead, it attempts to make the arts more accessible in order to adapt its target audiences to an increasingly deregulated labour market.9

Not only does the use of culture within a social inclusion agenda encourage previously disenfranchised workers to play a productive role in the economy, but it also aims to project a veneer of job satisfaction from within the sector, with 'empowered' arts workers finding self esteem through their poorly paid work. By ring-fencing cultural spending in this way, to plug the gaps in health and education, social inclusion policy acts as a palliative that simultaneously does nothing to address the causes of inequality in society and again fails to recognise the critical potential of art.

While an examination of the 1991 census identifies an estimated 2% of the workforce of Scotland engaged in cultural occupations and an extrapolation of figures collected in a 2003 audit shows that visual artists contribute £22 million to the Scottish economy, the same report demonstrates that 82% of visual artists in Scotland earn less than £5,000 per year from their practice, with 28% earning nothing whatsoever.10 The Scottish Artists' Union,11 established in 2001 along traditional trade union lines, aims to address such inequalities of income, following similar attempts by the Artists' Union12 in London (1972-1983) and initiatives beyond the UK. Current realities would suggest, however, that artists are barely more empowered than when they first began unionising.

Rather than investing in the research and development of artistic practice or in the grassroots organisations that do the most to support this practice, the visual art department of the Scottish Arts Council13 cites the maintenance of core institutions as its main priority within its remit to increase participation and pours the majority of its funding (more than 93% of voted funds) into an infrastructure of galleries and museums under the misapprehension that some of it will trickle down to artists through nominal fees. Only a tiny percentage of visual arts funding reaches artists directly,14 tending to favour those with a proven track record rather than those at the start of their 'careers'. There is little transparency about how grants are awarded and minimal involvement of artists in decision-making processes or strategic planning committees.

In April 2004, a Cultural Commission15 was set up by the Scottish Executive to review cultural provision in Scotland, which is likely to see the demise of the Arts Council in favour of centralised (Scottish Executive) or localised (local authority) control of cultural provision. Representations have been made on behalf of artists and grassroots communities for better direct support and resources, but it remains to be seen, when the Commission reports back to the Executive at the end of June 2005, the extent to which these wishes are taken into account. Elsewhere, questions are being raised as to the viability of continuing to accept compromised public funding. Francis McKee – who curated the first dedicated representation of Scotland at the Venice Biennale in 2003 and the recent Glasgow International and is, therefore, well placed to understand the national and local funding situation – has commented:

At root, there is a lack of confidence in public funding for the arts. The government do not demonstrate any passionate commitment to the funding for artists – either forgetting the reasons for the introduction of such public funding or no longer believing in the original principles of that contract. Perhaps it is time to reassess the whole basis of the relationships between the art community and the government. It may be wrong for the government to have any involvement with the arts in contemporary society and the old expectations of funding may be redundant. In this case, artists might have to accept that it would be healthier to expect no public funding rather than continued funding from bodies unconvinced or unable to understand the role of the arts in their culture ...16

Whether artists are rendered ineligible for public funding by failing to meet ever more stringent criteria or whether they relinquish their claim to it altogether, it is clear that a viable economic alternative will have to be found that sustains artistic practice in the future. Public funding bodies, it seems, have their own, rather surprising, ideas on what this might be.

Where once it might have been possible to speak of a division between public and private interests, within the art microcosm, as elsewhere, there has been a steady erosion of any semblance of distinction, with a mesh of interweaving solidarities ensuring that there is an ongoing symbiosis between the two realms. It is important to note that this does not entail a nation state entirely subordinate to corporate interests; rather that 'the illusion of a weakened state is the smokescreen thrown up by the designers of the 'new order'. Margaret Thatcher concentrated executive power while claiming the opposite; Tony Blair has done the same.'17 But it is a truism that nowadays no consideration of cultural policy in the UK public sector would be complete without mentioning the private sector.

Throughout the 1990s, multinational corporations intervened into publicly-funded arts institutions, primarily through sponsorship programmes and networking clubs.18 This move was, by and large, embraced by institutions whose ambitions had exceeded their budgets. Initially centred on London, there is evidence that the practice of corporate sponsorship has spread throughout the UK.19 Additionally, in struggling to meet the increasing obligations of their public funding, multi-functional arts centres have largely adopted a model described elsewhere in the public sector (transport, education, health) as Public Private Partnerships, through restaurant franchising and corporate hires.

Rather than countering the trend for direct corporate intervention into the arts and publicly-funded attempts to fuel the private labour market through policies like social inclusion, or by lobbying for recognition of the critical value of art in order to safeguard it, Arts Council England responded by commissioning a report from private consultants20 called Taste Buds: how to cultivate the art market. This document unequivocally places the flourishing private market at the centre of the art system and examines how it could be better exploited, identifying a further 6.1 million potential collectors of contemporary art. In a final assimilation of public into private, the report identifies 'subscription […] the process by which art is filtered and legitimised' whereby:

Networks of art world professionals, including academics, curators, dealers, critics, artists and buyers, provide advocacy and endorsement for an artist's work through exhibitions, critical appraisal and private and public purchases. The value of an artist's work increases in direct proportion to the subscription it attracts and sustains.21

Taste Buds demonstrates exactly how this process works, with all activities in what was traditionally regarded as the public sphere – from art school and artist-led activity to public gallery – rendered subordinate to the market. Significantly, the report places 'special emphasis on the sales of 'cutting edge' contemporary work, which is critically engaged'. Combined with the fact that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport has just frozen Arts Council England funding (which essentially means a £30 million shortfall over the next few years),22 that the Welsh Arts Council narrowly escaped being scrapped in favour of centralised Welsh Assembly control23 and that the Cultural Commission in Scotland is likely to recommend more centralised control, it could be assumed that, by potentially finding a private home for even the most challenging artwork, Arts Council England is pre-emptively exempting itself from support.

In Scotland, this move towards the private market has been paralleled by funding being ear-marked for art fairs 24 and a 'collecting initiative'25 (which has so far seen the production of a leaflet26 to engender a new art-buying public and the introduction of interest-free loans for the purpose27). Ongoing public funding for Glasgow's internationally successful commercial gallery, The Modern Institute – which has arguably influenced a general move towards more readily commodifiable artwork discernible in the city – has been secured for the next three years.28 The 2004 Glasgow Art Fair included stands by many grassroots organisations;29 lack of funding for travel means that attendance at art fairs is advocated by public funders for those voluntary initiatives wishing to broaden their networks and has been cited as the reason for artist-run Transmission taking part in the Frieze Art Fair 2004, something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. It comes as little surprise, therefore, that the content of artist-run spaces increasingly parallels that of commercial galleries.

What the concept of a thriving private market bridging the public funding shortfall fails to take proper account of is the position of critically-engaged art in relation to the private market. Aside from the fact that it is unrealistic to expect the most contentious work to find buyers, it is also conceivable that artists may not want to offer up their practice for commodification. In 1991, Glasgow-based artist Ross Sinclair noted that artist-led initiatives defined their own terms for how work should be made and shown and, particularly when occurring outside London, were most successful when dealing with a specifically local context rather than aspiring to adopt the language of the commodified centre:

When the context of art dissolves into the realm of formalism and the art world exclusively, it has relinquished much of its potential for social function. It loses an important dimension and diminishes from a potentially rounded, holistic art practice and becomes a two-dimensional veneer. Then its meaning and location exists primarily for the market and the cultural activity. Art ceases to have a wider social function other than in matters of economics.30


Fast-forward ten years and the logical consequence of current cultural policy is that the majority of artists will no longer be able to rely on public funding for the research and production of their work.

In kowtowing to regressive, market-driven policies like social inclusion, the 'arms-length' funding bodies rendered themselves indistinguishable from Government and will have ceased to exist, replaced by bureaucrats, with no specialist arts knowledge, intent on instrumentalising culture to neo-imperial ends. When consideration is given to the negligible amount of unencumbered public funding remaining, those artists intending to voice dissent through their work – by destabilising fragile notions of national identity or challenging the wisdom of Government policies – will be the first to be discounted. While the state will continue to hand out occasional accolades in the form of residencies and awards, for those with career paths validated by its core infrastructure, artists will largely be abandoned to finding alternative sources of income, such as teaching and installation work, that is increasingly the norm.

In order to avoid this, battle needs to be waged on several fronts. Those who believe in the public provision of independent culture as a fundamental democratic right must continue to lobby for improvements in the system, to ensure that more money is disseminated directly to artists and free of obligation. As a defence against the instrumentalisation of artistic practice, a sound case needs to be made for the primacy of artistic autonomy, which has been all too easy to dismiss in the rush to harness art to a questionable political agenda. This will necessitate grassroots research into historical and contemporary practice and its appropriation by various regimes. The findings of this research will provide sympathetic Secretaries of State with the tools they need to justify 'what culture actually does in and of itself.'

By 2015, the network of 'public' arts institutions will have consolidated itself, in partnership with the private sector, with a few casualties falling by the wayside. Without being held to account, the majority of institutions will continue failing to make any significant difference to the economies of the artists they are alleged to serve. To prevent this, the existing institutions of art need to be made more accountable and transparent. In this regard, one of the recommendations made to the Cultural Commission in Scotland on behalf of artists and grassroots organisations was that institutions should include a clear line in their budgets detailing fees to artists, aside from production or exhibition costs. This would allow for the ready comparison of institutions to each other and to national standards that are yet to be set. Institutional figures with a conscience must take a stand on matters of principle such as this and have a responsibility to set and adhere to the parameters of what is acceptable in their treatment of artists.

New organisations will be required that are capable of responding to the changing situation. In London, a diverse group has formed around Flaxman Lodge, a space established in response to the fact that 'very few economic models, forms of organisation or address[…] have managed to keep pace with the fields they claim to engage and critique'. Aiming 'to imagine building environments that might offset the crushing corporatisation of cultural space in London' Flaxman Lodge has acknowledged the 'tension between what could be referred to as its inevitable subject-centredness (courtesy of the lease, funds and space that make it possible), and its objective to build models of collective production, enunciation, sustainability'.31 Following an initial invitation, in March, 2004, for thirty people to join an internet forum and play a part in the democratic regulation of activities,32 many more people have registered to be involved, which has generated as much of a mental space as a physical one and is at the forefront of many of the issues outlined here. As power is concentrated in ever fewer hands, self-sustaining economies will need to be developed that do not rely solely on the logic of capitalism. It is too early to imagine what these may be but work needs to be done in close conjunction with economists to develop new possibilities.

Abetted by the public sector, the private market will have flourished and replaced public funding as the predominant means of support for those graduating from art schools in the UK. This will tangibly affect the kind of work being made by artists. Given the convergence of public and private interests in the total orientation towards a market economy, artists wishing to undertake work that is not determined by market forces will be left with little choice besides total withdrawal and a refusal to engage with existing mechanisms. This will extend to both their individual and collective practice and the multifarious attempts by artists to bypass institutions, through their self-organised activity, in recent decades will form the basis for this.

The Cube microplex in Bristol is an interesting example of non-hierarchical voluntary labour, with more than a hundred people involved in producing a lively programme of events in an old cinema space (sometimes only tangentially related to film), relying on ticket sales for running costs and programming.33 Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington DC, calculated that government provision of a 'shadow wage' through tax deductions for the partially employed and a guaranteed income for the unemployed (a move which apparently received unambiguous support in the United States as early as 1967), would work out cheaper for the government than administering community programmes themselves.34 Similar moves within the voluntary sector of the art world would safeguard its necessary survival. While the introduction of salaried positions into voluntary organisations would inevitably force a significant shift in ethos that some may not be prepared to accept, the right to make a living wage should be extended to individual artists and those working in grassroots organisations.

Another avenue of expression for critically-engaged practice may be found by linking with broader critical and activist agendas. In this regard, Variant magazine is a pioneer; the current issue features articles around the G8 summit, the detention of refugees in Scotland and the exclusion of women from the politics of Northern Ireland35 alongside artwork by Glasgow-based artists Euan Sutherland and Jim Colquhoun.

The predictions being made here are by no means fanciful; they merely follow the trajectories of current cultural policy in the UK to their (il)logical conclusions. Rumblings of discontent are becoming more audible among many disparate communities and alternatives are beginning to be sought. Much work needs to be done, on both a theoretical and practical level, to protect and sustain artistic autonomy for the future. But, there has never been a better time to start – in ten years' time, it will be too late.


1 The United Kingdom refers to the tenuous union between mainland Great Britain (England, Scotland, Wales) and the contested province of Northern Ireland.

2 Control of the following is reserved by the government in London: constitutional matters, UK foreign policy, UK defence and national security, fiscal, economic and monetary system, immigration and nationality, energy: electricity, coal, gas and nuclear energy, common markets, trade and industry, including competition and customer protection, some aspects of transport, including railways, transport safety and regulation, employment legislation, social security, gambling and the National Lottery, data protection, abortion, human fertilisation and embryology, genetics, xenotransplantation and vivisection, equal opportunities.

3 Tessa Jowell, Government and the Value of Culture, May, 2004 (http://www.culture.gov.uk/global/publications/archive_2004)

4 David Edgar, The Guardian, 22 May, 2004

5 In his 2003 St Andrew’s Day speech. See http://www.scottishexecutive.gov.uk/News/Releases/2003/11/4641

6 Published in August 2000 by the Scottish Executive, the National Cultural Strategy set out its four aims as follows:
- Promote creativity, the arts, and other cultural activity
- Celebrate Scotland’s cultural heritage in its full diversity
- Realise culture’s potential contribution to education, promoting inclusion and enhancing people’s quality of life
- Assure an effective national support framework for culture
See http://www.scotland.gov.uk/nationalculturalstrategy/docs/cult-00.asp

7 Scottish Arts Council Corporate Plan 2004-2009, p. 8 http://www.scottisharts.org.uk/1/information/publications/1000271.aspx

8 Scottish Arts Council Corporate Plan, op cit, p. 17

9 Cultural Policy Collective, Beyond Social Inclusion: Towards Cultural Democracy, 2004

(see http://www.culturaldemocracy.net)

10 Bonnar Keenlyside, Making Their Mark: An Audit of Visual Artists in Scotland

(see http://www.scottisharts.org.uk/1/information/publications/1000328.aspx)

13 see Scottish Arts Council Visual Arts Strategy (2002-2007) http://www.scottisharts.org.uk/1/information/publications/1000772.aspx

16 Francis McKee, ‘Hearts and Minds’ in Scotland Now (Edinburgh: Fruitmarket Gallery, 2004), p. 21

17 John Pilger, ‘The Great Game’ in New Rulers of the World (London: Verso, 2002) p. 119

18 This was well documented by Anthony Davies and Simon Ford in their trilogy of texts, Art Capital, Art Futures and Culture Clubs (see http://www.infopool.org.uk) and by Chin Tao-wu in her book Privatising Culture: Corporate Art Intervention since the 1980s (London: Verso, 2002).

19 In Scotland, for example, this has seen corporate sponsors infiltrating the main exhibition venues e.g. Bloomberg at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket, Beck’s Bier at the Centre for Contemporary Art and Hiscox at Tramway (both Glasgow).

20 It has become customary for private consultants to be commissioned by Arts Councils to write their reports, employees of public funding bodies presumably lacking the objectivity or expertise.

21 Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, Taste Buds: How to cultivate the art market (London: Arts Council England, October, 2004). p. 3 (see http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/information/publication_detail.php?browse=recent&id=416)

22 Charlotte Higgins & Maev Kennedy, ‘Arts funding freeze sparks fury’, The Guardian, Tuesday December 14, 2004

23 Magnus Linklater, ‘We all get singed when a quango burns’, The Times, 15 December, 2004

24 £10,000 p.a. over the next three years. See http://www.scottisharts.org.uk/1/information/publications/1000358.aspx for 2004-2006 budgets

25 £25,000 p.a.

28 Currently 」50,000 p.a. rising steadily to 」51,500 in 2006, which represents 1.3% of the total visual arts budget (」3,975,935 in 2006).

29 Glasgow Art Fair (15-18 April, 2004) included Collective Gallery, The Embassy, EmergeD, Glasgow Sculpture Studios, Lapland, Limousine Bull, Market Gallery, Switchspace and Volume.

30 Ross Sinclair, ‘Questions’ in the catalogue for Windfall, an artist-initiated exhibition at the Seamen’s Mission in Glasgow, 1991

32 The author was one of the initial thirty invitees and has participated in discussions.

33 See Ben Slater, ‘Cube Culture: Exploding the frames of cinema in Bristol’ in Variant, Volume 2, number 16, winter 2002, pp. 29-30

34 See Jeremy Rifkin, ‘Empowering the Third Sector’ in The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labour Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995), pp. 249-274

35 See Gus Abraham ‘The Saints of the Future’, Tom Allan ‘Freedom from Seizure’ and Colin Graham ‘not simply, relations of a man’ respectively in Variant issue 23, summer 2005