Thursday, 1 January 2009

Mayor's cultural priorities

A little late in the day, but I thought I'd react to Cultural Metropolis. The Mayor's Priorities for Culture 2009-2012. It's interesting for two reasons. Firstly and obviously, because Boris and his Director of Arts and Culture Policy set out their policies for culture in London, and secondly because - you never know - there might be hints as to what cultural policy looks like under a Conservative government.

So, what is the Tory/Boris vision of culture? It's one that is important. Boris makes the point in his Foreword that it should not be an "add on". So far, so much the same as the current government. Where the rhetoric begins to diverge is around the impact of culture. Munira Mirza's Introduction is very heavy on the importance of the economic impact. This may be a response to the recession, but it may be an echo of the old Tory concern that if the arts get subsidy, then they should pay their way.

Further divergence comes around the question of participation. Increasing this is a key plank of current government policy. It's there in Cultural Metropolis, but action does not match rhetoric. Of course the Mayor's impact is limited in this regard, but proposals such as the distribution of unused musical instruments to schools are not presented in the context of current and ongoing national initiatives. Thus, they come across as gimmicks. The notion of participation is an interesting one too, it's more of a "bums on seats" than a "create your own" view of culture.

Culture is a unifying local factor where communities come together within themselves, or with others in shared participation and creativity. This is referred to in passing, but with oblique statements about how community level activity is mired in red tape. This could be a laissez faire view (if so, it's wrong, culture is one of the least regulated areas of public activity, no matter what artists say)

How to pay for culture is a problem, and Cultural Metropolis berates national government for the "lottery raid" ahead of the Olympics (neatly ignoring that much of this money will be ploughed back into London). It also exhorts local government to maintain levels of funding, particularly to local museums and archives (where Tory authorities have often been the worst offenders). This represents one of the weaknesses of the strategic remit of the Mayor and GLA, but it also might reflect an unwillingness on the part of Conservative policy makers to maintain or increase subsidy.

There are a couple of well ridden hobby horses trotting through the document. Munira on multiculturalism, and Boris is obviously concerned that the lower orders aren't getting enough Plato with an appeal to widen teaching of Classics for London children.

So, what does Cultural Metropolis tell us? That the main difference between Labour and the Tories is a shift to seeing economic impact as the key instrumental benefit of culture. That there is less of an emphasis on participation for social and community ends. Greater emphasis on getting people in to see "high" culture rather than supporting them in defining and creating their own locally. Less importance placed upon diversity and multiculturalism.

Alongside this there is a uncertainty over the policy instruments to attain this. Others are exhorted to maintain funding, gimmicks rather than substantive delivery shifts are proposed.

Boris's priorities are very different from Ken's. No ethnically-specific festivals, no Mayor's Commission on African and Asian Heritage. He knows what we wants, but it will take him a little more time to decide how to get it. Boris needs to work out how to manage the relationship with the boroughs on the one hand, and on the other with central government, which funds most of the cultural powerhouses in the capital. We must wait for the Cultural Strategy to see how he will do this.

As for Tory cultural policy more broadly, I expect that Cultural Metropolis reflects the general position of the Cameron Conservatives. They, like the mayor, consider themselves cultured and will not be the avowedly philistine Thatcherites. They will have clear views about what they want and I imagine they will chime with Boris's. Like him, though, it will take them time to work out how they want them delivered.

With the economy dominating all, they will be long on vision and short on actualities. I suspect it will be two years into any future Conservative government before we really see what culture under the Tories looks like.

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