The Guardian view on excellence in the arts: not about elites | Editorial

It is refreshing to hear new ideas, but dividing culture into the best and the rest won’t do anyone any good

The arts have taken such a battering in the UK over the last decade that they sometimes seem like an old ship holed beneath the waterline, with an orchestra valiantly continuing to play on deck. Nobody really knows what to do apart from bailing out water, firing occasional SOS flares and trying to keep the music going. So it is refreshing when new ideas are introduced.

Earlier this month, Sir Nicholas Hytner, a former head of the publicly funded National Theatre and now founder-director of the unfunded Bridge Theatre, proposed a radical solution. A future government, he wrote, should follow the lead of sport and devolve arts funding into two separate bodies: one would support community initiatives, education and outreach programmes, leaving the Arts Council to focus “on making the best possible art by professional artists for the most diverse audience”.

Last week, the chair of Arts Council England, Sir Nicholas Serota, responded. He agreed that culture has been squeezed out of the school curriculum to such an extent that Arts Council funding alone could not compensate for the loss. At £458.5m – less than 0.05% of all government spending – its grant is so woefully inadequate that even doubling it would make barely a dent in the national finances. But he went on to argue that “the interdependence of the cultural world is such that you can no longer draw clear lines between us and them. To do so is to risk creating barriers to creativity, innovation and hidden talent.”

As the architect of the Let’s Create strategy – a 10-year plan to “deliver high quality experiences to every one of us” – the Arts Council chief has clearly thought long and hard about this. But his organisation is also under instruction to move the inadequate money it has around to serve the government’s flailing levelling up agenda, with serious consequences for many organisations both in and beyond London.

He cited three successes: the Royal Opera working with communities in the Thames estuary; the Royal Shakespeare Company touring Julius Caesar, with choruses of local volunteers; and Turner prize nominee Rory Pilgrim’s Heart of Glass collaboration with a community arts organisation in Merseyside. Though his argument is right, these are poor struts for it, being precisely the sort of projects that would fall neatly into the other Sir Nicholas’s remit for a slimmed down and rarefied Arts Council.

None challenge the traditional hierarchy of cultural value in the way that, say, the Arts Council’s £400,000 recognition of the Carnival Village Trust as one of its national portfolio organisations does, for all that it is based in the capital and its highest profile partner is the Notting Hill carnival.

The argument for keeping the arts under a single umbrella has to be that it is central to their value that they are not like sport. Culture is not about the best and the rest. In today’s society, carnival and opera cannot be judged against each other, any more than performance poetry can be considered innately inferior to the work of published poets.

Some child somewhere in the country has the potential to offer a new way of looking at everything in our broken world: nurture, recognition and remuneration have equally important roles to play in enabling their excellence to emerge, for the benefit of everyone. If we don’t invest, we will end up very poor indeed.



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