Tristram Hunt’s decision to resign from parliament to become director of the Victoria and Albert Museum is bad news for Labour, but good news for Britain’s arts sector. Following the recent resignation of his parliamentary colleague Jamie Reed, it is a worrying symptom of the health of the opposition and could send discouraging signals to some voters about how talented Labour MPs see the party’s future.
Hunt’s appointment presents an exciting opportunity for the arts world. Together with the appointment of Maria Balshaw, who is set to become the Tate’s first female director, it marks a new generation of leadership at Britain’s leading cultural institutions.
Hunt joins a burgeoning and confident sector that has asserted its importance to British identity, economic growth and civic life in the last two decades. In recent years, national museums have put on innovative exhibitions that have reached unprecedented levels of popularity, from David Bowie at the V&A, to the British Museum’s Vikings exhibition. The National Theatre has produced a series of hit productions, such as War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, that have transferred to the West End and toured the country; and Britain is still a great centre of film-making.
But the arts sector faces some potentially tricky headwinds following Britain’s vote to leave the EU. Like many economic sectors, it relies on Britain’s reputation for openness to attract international talent; it will be hurt if the rest of the world perceives Britain turning inwards as a result of Brexit. And the Brexit vote highlighted the cultural gap between the liberal arts establishment and the wider country; according to one of its member surveys, 96% of members of the Creative Industries Federation voted to remain in the EU. On both sides of the Atlantic, the arts have benefited from patronage from the Washington and Westminster political establishments. From Tony Blair to David Cameron, and Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, modern arts and culture have been embraced as part of the liberal political zeitgeist. In the US, a stark new divide has opened up, perhaps best illustrated by president-elect Donald Trump’s struggle to secure any significant artists to play at his inauguration on Friday.
In the UK, Theresa May is less of a known quantity than her predecessors for the arts. A regular attender of the Proms, she is an active consumer of the arts. But will Britain’s arts world feel the chill of the strong attack on the liberal elite she made in her speech to the Conservative party conference last year? There is no doubt the arts sector could do more to respond to the charge that for too long it has been too elitist, inaccessible and lacking in diversity. The Arts Council has long been criticised for being too London focused in the way it distributes funding, with stark gaps in per-capita funding between London and elsewhere. The sector also has a major diversity problem: it remains too male and pale.
On a superficial level, Hunt’s appointment does nothing to challenge that. But as a former MP from Stoke he brings something different to one of Britain’s top arts institutions: insights and experiences from outside the London liberal arts elite. He has shown in the past a willingness to challenge the arts establishment’s received wisdoms. Maria Balshaw certainly brings something different, having been a key figure in the regeneration of Manchester’s thriving cultural scene. Together, they could be just the shake-up the arts world needs.