State of the Arts: The "Ministry of Fun" Was Hailed as One of John Major's "Big Ideas", Offering "A Fundamental Vision of the Kind of Society That He Wants Britain to Be". Twelve Years, Two Governments and Six Secretaries of State Later, How Has It Fared?

New Statesman (1996), March 22, 2004 | Go to article overview

State of the Arts: The "Ministry of Fun" Was Hailed as One of John Major's "Big Ideas", Offering "A Fundamental Vision of the Kind of Society That He Wants Britain to Be". Twelve Years, Two Governments and Six Secretaries of State Later, How Has It Fared?


Nicholas Serota

Director of Tate Modern

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Since the creation of the Department of National Heritage in 1992, the arts have been able to claim a place at the cabinet table in No 10, and this has led to a fundamental change in the way they have been treated by government. This is especially true since Labour took office in 1997 and the subsequent increases in funding for both the arts and the museums and galleries sector. The arts do now have a voice in government. What concerns me is that this voice should not only be-loud, but also be heard by more powerful cabinet colleagues, such as the Treasury.

The fact remains that the public's enthusiasm for the arts seems to be running some way ahead of the appetite of politicians to embrace culture as a fundamental part of the fabric of society. I hope politicians will recognise that, for young people especially, the arts are not something foreign or distant, but very much a part of life, in London and beyond. I would hope the government might recognise that Britain plays a leading role in the world in the field of culture.

David Hare

Playwright

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My play The Permanent Way is about the curse of management culture. This ascendant cult of bureaucracy is nowhere more virulent than at the BBC and at the Arts Council. Once artists were given money and told to get on with fulfilling the true purpose of art: simply put, the creation of beauty and meaning. Now management moonies blizzard theatres and orchestras with meaningless demands. Good people, in response, waste hours "defining their objectives" and peddling palliative crap in the hope of wheedling the small amounts of cash that make the difference between extinction and survival.

There is currently no hope of cleaning the fouled gutter that is the Arts Council, because we are being forced to work to a false model. Governments of both stripes demanded the deadly apparatus of business-friendly philanthropy--top-heavy development departments, PR staff, executive directors, donor lists--without noticing that the habit of generosity which marks out the United States barely obtains in this country.

As so often, we have seized from the US all the worst aspects of its culture without adopting the best. Here, business and the ruling class take their cue from the monarch, who has never, as far as I know, reached into her pocket to endow a single hospital, school or arts centre. Theatres, opera houses and orchestras are now groaning with staff charged to chase the illusion that the same free-spending sense of civic duty that marks out the self-made in the US will one day begin to take hold here. Little sign of it yet.

As with the railways, the government needs to reassert the vital principle that public funding involves public responsibility. It would be exhilarating to turn from the time-wasting effort of trying to shake out the pockets of the champagne-belching stony-hearted to the rather more rewarding task of putting on plays for the non-dinner-suited public at large. My experience is, when they're allowed to see them, they seem to like them.

Richard Eyre

Theatre and film director

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Not long after the general election in 1997, Tony Blair held a meeting to discuss the arts. He listened patiently to the case for raising the priority of the arts in funding terms, in education and in the public's perception. I should have taken seriously the barely concealed glare of disdain that Alastair Campbell gave us, but Blair said that "the arts will be put at the core of the government's thinking" and I--sentimental softie that I am--believed him.

Four years later, the arts were finally given a substantial increase in Treasury grant and the Creative Partnerships initiative was set up in an attempt to dissolve the apartheid between those who enjoy the benefits of the arts and those who feel disenfranchised from them. …

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State of the Arts: The "Ministry of Fun" Was Hailed as One of John Major's "Big Ideas", Offering "A Fundamental Vision of the Kind of Society That He Wants Britain to Be". Twelve Years, Two Governments and Six Secretaries of State Later, How Has It Fared?
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