We are breathing new life into communities by funding arts around the country
It is an enormous privilege to be the minister responsible for championing our world-class arts and cultural sector – and a great responsibility to do so in what continues to be a turbulent time for it and the brilliant people who sustain it.
When Covid hit, the sector reacted with great resilience and ingenuity to find innovative ways to keep reaching audiences, entertaining and comforting people during the dark days of lockdown.
It did this despite facing existential threats, as box office income and ticket sales dried up overnight. The government could not allow these brilliant organisations to close their doors forever – which is why Rishi Sunak, then chancellor, stepped in and provided more than £1.5bn of life-support to around 5,000 cultural organisations across the country through the unprecedented Culture Recovery Fund.
That money was distributed through our brilliant arm’s-length bodies – Arts Council England, the British Film Institute, Historic England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund – and a board of cultural leaders who worked urgently and thoroughly to get help to those who needed it.
And those 5,000 organisations have done us all proud by getting quickly back to what they do so brilliantly — welcoming people back to their venues, supporting their fantastic creative staff and the freelancers who are so vital to the sector, and bringing people back together again through the arts.
Having been appointed minister towards the end of the pandemic, I’ve seen some of the good things which came out of those difficult months as well as the huge challenges. The solidarity and support between organisations who helped each other has led to new partnerships and fruitful collaboration. The use of digital technology during lockdown has continued, helping to bring cultural work to wider audiences and people who found it difficult to access before. The ‘staycations’ and restrictions on travel have reconnected so many of us with the brilliant arts, heritage and culture on our doorsteps.
And the government is working to ensure that that culture is available closer to everyone’s doorstep. For too long, public subsidy for the arts has been unevenly spread around the country. Our capital city has a vital role to play in promoting world-class culture, and offering a national stage on which people from all over the UK can shine – but so do other parts of the country. In recent years, London has received public subsidy of £21 per person compared to an average of £6 per person in the rest of England. That is neither fair nor defensible.
DCMS secured an uplift for Arts Council England at the last Spending Review. Thanks to this and increases from the National Lottery, the Arts Council is able to spend £30m a year more on its ‘national portfolio organisations’ in the funding round which starts next month than in the round before. The government asked it to ensure that this larger funding pot is shared more fairly around the country – something the Arts Council itself has been taking steps to address in recent years. While that has involved some difficult decisions for the independent staff and leading cultural figures who make up Arts Council England – as every funding round does – it has resulted in a record number of cultural organisations being funded, in more places than ever before.
Together, Arts Council England and DCMS identified over 100 areas which had not been receiving as much arts funding as they should – places including Wolverhampton, Hartlepool, Rotherham and Peterborough. In these ‘levelling up for culture places’, funding has almost doubled. Many places, such as Mansfield, Blackburn and Bolsover, will now receive Arts Council funding for the first time.
For too long, public subsidy for the arts has been unevenly spread around the country.
We are levelling up within London too – the new portfolio includes an increased number of organisations in London, while outer London boroughs such as Enfield, Brent, and Barking & Dagenham are receiving a boost. In Croydon alone, funding will double, with three new organisations joining the portfolio.
This increase in funding will help organisations across England to engage new audiences and improve access to the arts no matter where people live.
But funding through the Arts Council is only one part of the jigsaw. Through the Cultural Investment Fund, the government is investing directly in museums, galleries, libraries and other cultural venues at the heart of their communities. Last year we announced £48m from the fund for more than 60 venues. Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery received £5m to fund structural works while £4m went to Berwick Barracks in Northumberland to turn it into a year-round cultural venue with refurbished gallery and cinema spaces.
This funding is breathing new life into communities and enriching lives through access to high-quality arts and culture. It is also driving economic growth by creating jobs and boosting tourism – and inspiring people from all over the country to see that they can have rewarding careers (in every sense) in our fast-growing creative industries.
There are still challenges ahead – not least the rising cost of energy. That’s why the government delivered £18bn of support through the Energy Bills Relief Scheme, including to cultural venues, and will continue to help through to March 2024 with the Energy Bills Discount Scheme. But, as we emerge from the pandemic and get back to doing the things we missed so terribly, there is reason to look forward to more people than ever before creating, sharing, and enjoying the brilliant arts and culture for which this country is rightly renowned.
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