Fifteen years after his landmark book on the creative economy, Chris Smith calls for a new way of thinking about arts funding
In 1998 – as secretary of state for culture, media and sport in the newly-elected Labour government – I published a book, Creative Britain. In it, I argued that the arts were for everyone, not just the privileged few; and that the creative industries – dependent for their success on individual artistic creativity – had moved from the fringes to the centre of the UK economy, with huge benefits for the social and economic health of the nation. I called for the nurturing and celebration of creative talent to be at the heart of the political agenda.
In the 15 years since Creative Britain was published, the UK has been living through something of a golden age for the arts and museums. This has, of course, been primarily thanks to our gifted artists, performers and arts administrators. But it has also been down to the strength of our distinctive mixed funding model for the arts. We have had neither the massive reliance on private funding seen in the US, nor the almost exclusive reliance on public funding that pertains in large parts of Europe.
This mixed funding regime has involved considerable and sustained support nationally through the arts councils, local and regional backing from local government, substantial support from trusts and foundations established by wealthy philanthropists, and rising amounts of corporate investment. Arts organisations have also proved to be highly skilled at identifying new commercial, retail and ancillary opportunities, whether in shops and cafes, online retailing, or imaginative entertainment opportunities.
This broad mix of funding has brought financial stability, and with it a large amount of artistic success and astonishingly good creative work. It's been a remarkable decade. It has also ensured the twin objectives for cultural policy that I set out in Creative Britain have been made possible: excellence and access. For me, the task of public investment in the arts is to ensure that work of compelling excellence can be achieved, and then to ensure that the widest possible number of people have the chance to come and experience it.
But the funding picture is changing. The arts councils' funding is diminishing, and support from many local authorities is falling off a cliff – not because councils want to stop funding, but because their own funding settlements have been severely cut. In September, Arts Development UK's tenth annual survey (PDF) revealed that more than 35% of local authorities in England and Wales had no dedicated arts officer and no direct arts service.
At the same time, corporate donations are becoming stricter, and philanthropic foundations have seen their income fall alongside interest rates. An economic storm is putting the mixed funding model at serious risk, and arts organisations around the country are facing a desperately uncertain future. The two primary objectives of excellence and access are becoming more difficult – yet more essential – to sustain.
This is why I believe we need to place more emphasis in the future on a multitude of individual sources of giving, rather than relying quite so heavily on a relatively small number of wealthy people. And two things that have happened in the past 15 years are working in our favour in this respect.
First, the enormous growth of the audience for the arts brings with it a genuine opportunity to democratise arts giving and enable everyone to feel part of the support for their cultural heritage. And secondly, the explosion of news ways of communicating and new technology has brought not just new means to experience art, but new ways to give too.
The development of Donate – a digital philanthropy tool for the arts and heritage sector using mobile channels and run by the National Funding Scheme, of which I am a patron – enables people to donate, quickly and easily, at the very moment of enjoyment and experience. Social media has transformed the ways in which we can learn about and enrich our encounters with the world of the arts. The world of the arts can (and must) turn that transformation to its advantage, and seize the funding opportunities which it brings.
Chris Smith (Lord Smith of Finsbury) was UK secretary of state for culture from 1997 to 2001