Great Britain’s sellout: why are we allowing our arts to be privatized by stealth? | Charlotte Higgin

JHere is a frequent complaint from the right that the deeply rooted ideological position of the BBC, universities, theatres, museums and other arts and cultural organizations has long been unquestioned awkwardness.

The paranoia about this is extreme: consider that the Prime Minister, Liz Truss, complained to journalist Tom Newton Dunn during an election campaign for the party leadership that he had framed a question “in a way of left “. The sheer madness here – although his words were no doubt carefully chosen to sow suspicion in the media at large – is that Newton Dunn is the Sun’s longtime former political editor, and is not known for its unbridled socialism.

The Tory fightback against this supposed hegemony of “cultural Marxism” (purely imaginary, given the real small-c conservatism of so many British cultural institutions) has been carried out in all sorts of high-profile ways, including appointing fellow ideological route for the (in theory) politically independent boards of national cultural organizations, and purge those who are seen as dissenters. See Tory donor Richard Sharp, now chairman of the BBC. See Aminul Hoque, an academic who at times expressed views that did not fully support the latest moves of the British empire, who was removed from his position as trustee of the Royal Museums in Greenwich.

But a quieter, more subtle — and perhaps, ultimately, more effective — right-wing revolution has been underway for years. It hasn’t been the bombastic culture war waged by former Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden. It’s been something much more insidious and far-reaching, and it’s not about how people think, but about the fundamentals of how many cultural organizations are run.

Change is the result of what happens when you drastically reduce public interest in the arts. For many cultural organisations, the Arts Council or their local authority is often no longer the main funder – and therefore the taxpayer is no longer the ultimate stakeholder. The balance has fundamentally changed. “For years I thought I was in the public sector,” a gallery manager told me. “Then I realized I was working for a charity to which the government is only a minority donor.”

The real author of this neoliberal turn is no culture warrior, and he is now the president of the British Museum: George Osborne. As part of its 2010 austerity measures, with Jeremy Hunt as culture secretary, Arts Council England was cut by 30% – hugely important for cultural organizations on the receiving side, and yet a figure laughably saved for the Treasury (the projection at the time was £457m over four years – absurdly and tragically just a third of 1% of the government’s projected budget saving).

The arts in England have since stalled, which in real terms has been between 30% and 50% over the last decade; and local authorities, also hard hit by austerity measures and then by the pandemic, have very often also cut their funding. Arts organizations have since been forced to look for money elsewhere and have improved a lot as business organizations: setting up a department store and cafe; to rent for events; or, like the Hepworth in Wakefield, charging entry to those outside their local authority area. Newer institutions have firmly incorporated this commercial side of their existence into their plans: the recently refurbished Museum of Making in Derby, for example, has a huge space on the ground floor designed to be rented out to local businesses such as than Rolls Royce.

And then there’s fundraising, from charitable trusts, often run by extremely wealthy people (media executive Elisabeth Murdoch is a relatively new player on this scene), or from wealthy people themselves. I vividly remember a director of a public gallery, caught off guard one evening at the Venice Biennale, telling me how they had started working in museums and galleries to change the lives of neighborhood children. underprivileged people in their city – so as not to spend so much of their professional life smilingly handing glasses of champagne to very wealthy people who might, or even very well might not agree, to contribute to the renovation of the gallery.

It is privatization. Nobody uses that term to describe what’s happening in the arts, but it’s not all that different from the stealth privatization that’s taking place in another area established in its present form after World War II: healthcare. For the NHS, privatization involves contracting out services and selling GP practices to US conglomerates. The means in the arts may be different, but the tendency to move away from the public domain is the same. In the tax-cut mania world of Trussonomics, it’s likely to happen even faster.

You might wonder if it really matters. Being forced to generate income from shops, cafes and the wealthy often makes institutions more fun than the somewhat lackluster civic museum of previous decades – who doesn’t appreciate a good coffee, a nice shop? Most people who work in such organizations would passionately say that just because they are less dependent on public funds does not make them feel a little less responsible to the public, less eager to reach such a large audience. as possible. , less desire to change lives for the better – just as NHS healthcare workers are still passionately dedicated to doing the best they can for their patients.

But there is a difference, however subtle it may seem from the outside. It is a question of knowing to whom the institutions are accountable. It is a question of hierarchies and power. (Are you a “friend”, with “guest room” privileges? Are you a donor to whose priorities or whims the gallery has found it necessary to adjust its program? to the board of directors, which will allow you to help set the direction of the organization?).

It also has to do with the moral and practical issues that arise when the money an organization has been forced to seek is widely seen as tainted. Exhibit A would be the scandal around the owners of Perdue Pharma, producer of the opioid painkiller OxyContin. Tate said in 2019, “We don’t think it’s fair to seek or accept new donations from the Sackler family.” But he had already pocketed a lot of Perdue over the decades, and couldn’t pay it back in a million years.

Do you know those small, well-maintained parks that developers sometimes have to provide as part of their contract with the community? They are often better maintained than public parks, with better planting. Their grass is still freshly green even during drought, and skilled gardeners keep them in spruce shape. There are no chewing-gum stains on his walkways. These places are public, in a way – in the sense that you can go there and eat your lunch on the grass, no problem (although you would certainly be upset if you were homeless and tried to sleep there). But the fact is that you, the ordinary citizen, do not own this park. And at an absolutely fundamental cellular level, you can sense not.

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