Corbyn’s Arts Policy: A Philosophy of Accessibility

“The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love.”

Arts policy may not have featured in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party Convention speech, but his use of this quote from Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri as well as a quote from African American novelist Maya Angelou says something about his view on culture. Inspired, I have taken a closer look at his arts policy white paper to see how his position stacks up against those of other parties as well as former Labour Party leaders.

For starters, Corbyn would significantly increase funding for the arts. In fact, he would completely reverse the Coalition government’s £500 million in cuts to the cultural sector. Great – yes.  Radical – no. Let’s not forget that many call the Blair years the golden age of arts in the UK, with never before seen investment in capital arts projects, the restoration of free admission to museums, and the growth of regional theatre. This reversal would roughly bring the sector’s funding back to where it was during the Blair/Brown administration.

What stands out as significant is not the funding, but the philosophy behind his arts policy proposal. Corbyn explicitly condemns the instrumentalist view that defines the value of arts in economic terms.  He is quoted as saying: “The arts aren’t just about making money, they are a vital part of how we communicate with each other, how we live with each other, how we celebrate being human.” Citing examples of the impact of drama studies on communication skills, Corbyn links the ability to take part in arts to civic participation and democratic values.

To this end, Corbyn’s specific policy ideas centre on increasing accessibility to arts and he is willing to tinker with the market economy to do it. For example, he would require commercial developers to fund public art in open spaces and large buildings (like the Dutch do).  He also proposes to give artists more protection against low wages – something even the most progressive countries have struggled to achieve – in order to allow more people to consider art as a career.

Corbyn believes that arts provision needs to be less London-centric and more regularly consumed by the working class public. Ed Milliband’s arts agenda was the same. Corbyn, however, seeks to address issues of access by distributing funding to local governments whereas Milliband wanted to create a new national committee for the arts with regional representation, essentially maintaining national control over funding. Corbyn’s policy actually mirrors the Green Party pledge to “give local authorities powers to encourage local live performance in the arts by moving funding from the regional to the local level.”

In terms of arts education for children, Corbyn wants more.  So did Blair and Miliband. However, like the Green Party, Corbyn wants to make subjects like dance and drama a part of the national curriculum as subjects within their own right, putting arts education on the same level as PE and sport. Miliband’s approach was to incentivise the inclusion of arts in formal education by incorporating it into the Ofsted rating system.

Corbyn tackles two areas that have gotten relatively little attention in previous Labour Party arts platforms – diversity and digital access.  On the subject of diversity, rather than focusing on ‘developing’ BAME populations for jobs in arts management (i.e. creating apprenticeships and career training programmes), Corbyn focuses on the development needs of cultural sector leaders. He contends that chairs of the boards of cultural organisations “must be held to account by the public.” He proposes to require chairs to attend diversity training and produce targeted plans to “build this expertise on their boards and in their executive team.”  As a black woman, I am relieved to see a diversity plan that does not make something lacking in me the source of the diversity problem.

Corbyn devotes an entire section of his arts white paper to digital. His big idea, which he admits to have taken from the recent Warwick Commission report, is to create a Digital Public Space. He explains that the space would be a ‘freely accessible digital cultural library of all our digitised cultural achievements.’ Europeana and The Space have attempted to do just this, with limited success. Nevertheless, I applaud Corbyn for embracing the digital and understanding its power to give access to culture.

Overall, Corbyn’s arts white paper contains progressive ideas that are not altogether new, but together articulate the position of someone who is serious about arts accessibility. He wants to make learning an art form a fundamental part of education, being an artist more financially sustainable, consuming art easier and cheaper, and leading an arts organisation something anyone, regardless of race, can do.

This brings me back to thinking about how Corbyn’s arts platform might stack up against Blair’s golden age of arts. Despite all the good that the Blair administration did, the Cool Britannia movement seemed to equate the worth of arts to its brand value for the UK. Damian Hirst, Spice Girls, and the V&A exhibition on Kylie Minogue espoused a young, hip Britain that was optimistic and forward looking.  Corbyn is not young or hip like Blair.  However, he is optimistic and forward looking in a deeper, more fundamental way.  His position on arts presents a person who believes that arts can build a better nation of people, not just give the slick appearance of one.

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