United Kingdom/ 1. Historical perspective: cultural policies and instruments  

Author: Rod Fisher, Andrew Ormston, Compendium of Cultural Policies and Trends in Europe

The United Kingdom is made up of four nations - England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, each with its own distinct culture and history. Three of these - England, Wales and Scotland - together make up Great Britain. The population of England is significantly higher than the three other nations combined.

Although there had been ad hoc legislation governing, for example, museums and libraries in the 19th and first 40 years of the 20th centuries, the present UK funding system has its origins in the 1940s; the international political climate at the time initiated a debate on whether there was a role for government in funding the arts as an expression of a free and democratic society. From this recognition sprang, in 1940, the first national body to support the arts, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA). This Council spent both charitable and public funds on the arts, eventually under the chairmanship of the great economist, John Maynard Keynes. His vision of state support for the arts was largely responsible for ensuring that CEMA evolved in 1946 into the Arts Council of Great Britain, still considered to be the first arts agency in the world to distribute government funds at "arm's-length" from politicians. Keynes believed that the Arts Council would only have a temporary existence during the rebuilding of cultural life in the aftermath of the Second World War. Nevertheless, consciously or otherwise, what had taken place was a tacit recognition by government that it had a role to play in supporting the arts. Houses of parliament

The Council's grant from government in 1945/46 was GBP 235 000. After 10 years it had grown modestly to GBP 820 000 (1955/56). The Council was primarily reactive - allocating funds for arts organisation and artists and providing help and encouragement. Gradually it cut back on direct provision for certain activities yet continued its support for the touring of art exhibitions and an "Opera for All" touring programme aimed at smaller venues. Significantly the various "Charters" giving the Council its mandate to operate never defined the "arts", and although the number of supported arts organisations grew, the range of artforms was still fairly narrow after 20 years (poetry, photography and jazz, for example, were not supported for many years). Although legally part of the Arts Council of Great Britain, Scotland and Wales had their own Arts Councils. The Arts Council of Northern Ireland was established as an independent body in 1962.

For much of the first 20 years of post war Britain, the government department responsible for the grant-in-aid to the Arts Council of Great Britain, the national museums and galleries and the British Library etc. was the Treasury. However, in 1965 responsibility was passed to the Department for Education & Science. At that time, the UK Government's first Minister for the Arts, Jenny Lee, issued a government White Paper setting out a Policy for the Arts, following which the Arts Council's grant significantly increased by 45% in 1966/67 and a further 26% in 1967/68, raising it to GBP 7.2 million.

Advice to national government on museum policy came from a Standing Commission on Museums and Galleries set up in 1931. It was given the responsibility of granting aid to national museums in 1963 and became the Museums and Galleries Commission with its own Charter in 1987. As we shall see it was to change its name twice more.

The 1970s were characterised by expansion of expenditure and by considerable debate about what forms of arts and culture should be subsidised. The protagonists were advocates of the "traditional" approach to supporting excellence in the classical or contemporary arts on the one hand, and the growing number of practitioners from what might be labelled "alternative culture" movements (built on the growth of community arts and arts centres and rooted in local communities) on the other, who labelled the Arts Council's approach as "elitist".

Local authorities began to expand their support, building or refurbishing regional theatres, museums and galleries and multi-purpose civic halls, as well as running their own programmes and festivals. However, although government legislation in 1948 had given local councils legal authority to support arts and entertainment the powers were, and remain, permissive rather than mandatory. As a consequence, support was patchy. The 1960s and 1970s were also the period when regional arts associations developed in a piecemeal fashion, either as consortiums of local arts organisations, or set up by local authorities as a reaction to the closure of the Arts Council of Great Britain's regional offices. Regional arts associations were primarily intermediate organisations, acting as a link between the Arts Council and the regions.

The 1980s were a decade when political and economic pressures led to a fundamental reappraisal of the funding and management of the arts and culture in Britain. While remaining committed to the principle of public sector support, the government of Margaret Thatcher required arts and culture organisations to look for new sources of revenue to supplement their income. As evidence of this change in public policy, witness the establishment in 1984 of the Business Sponsorship Incentive Scheme, which for the first time matched funds from business with a government grant, administered by Arts & Business to encourage new sponsorship from the private sector.

In 1990 the government asked the Arts Council of Great Britain to develop a National Arts and Media Strategy in partnership with the British Film Institute, Crafts Council, Scottish and Welsh Arts Councils and the regions. This was the first time in the Arts Council's history that an attempt had been made to devise a co-ordinated policy to broadly guide arts funding developments. This process involved the organisation of some 50 seminars around Britain to take evidence and a series of commissioned papers. However, not long after its publication in late 1992, the report was, in effect, "shelved".

In fact, the 1990s were characterised by fundamental policy and especially structural change in arts and culture. In 1992, a re-elected Conservative government established for the first time a co-ordinated Ministry to deal with arts, museums, libraries, heritage, media, sport and tourism called the Department of National Heritage. Then, in 1994, a fundamental decision was taken to devolve the Arts Council of Great Britain's responsibilities and functions to three new separate bodies: the Arts Council of England, the Scottish Arts Council and the Arts Council of Wales. Each nation therefore runs its own affairs in relation to arts funding, reflecting a broader trend to devolution.

A significant development was the introduction of the National Lottery in the mid 1990s which brought a major new income stream for the cultural sector. Since 1994, the National Lottery has raised over GBP 20 billion for good causes supporting the arts, heritage, sport, community and voluntary groups and, more recently, health, education and the environment. After an early focus on capital projects, the government made changes to enable funding to go to smaller community projects and make the Lottery more accessible to communities and responsive to people's priorities. Recently, the Olympic and Paralympic Games 2012 have been included as a good cause, a decision that has caused anxieties in the cultural sector about the perceived future diversion of funds.

The incoming Labour administration elected in 1997 renamed the Department of National Heritage as the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The government sought to reduce the number of arm's length cultural agencies through a series of mergers on the basis of reducing bureaucracy and minimising administrative spending. The Museums & Galleries Commission and the Library & Information Commission merged to become a new body initially called Re:source and, since 2004, known as the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA). The Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England was amalgamated with English Heritage.

The UK Film Council (UKFC) was created in 2000 as a new strategic agency to develop the UK's film industry and culture. The agency absorbed the British Film Commission, the production board of the British Film Institute (bfi), the Lottery film department of Arts Council England and the part private / part public body, British Screen Finance. The UKFC set up the Regional Investment Fund for England in 2001 to increase investment for film directly in the English regions. This led to the creation of the Regional Screen Agencies (RSAs), in the same year, which took their place alongside film agencies in Scotland (Scottish Screen), Wales (Sgrin Cymru) and Northern Ireland (Northern Ireland Screen Commission).

In April 2002 the Arts Council of England and the Regional Arts Boards were legally established as a single arts development agency for England. In February 2003 the organisation announced its new identity and slightly changed name: Arts Council England.

More recently, government driven changes have taken place in the Arts Councils in Scotland and Wales. There have also been changes in the system of support for national and regional museums, libraries and archives.

One feature of recent years has been the emergence of a more integrated system (in England at least), which has enabled central government policy priorities to be pursued at local and regional level and not "filtered" by intermediary agencies as has been the case historically. Arguably, this has begun to unravel following the abolition of the Regional Cultural Consortia that were set up in England to develop integrated cultural strategies and ensure that culture has a strong voice in regional development, and proposals by the New Coalition Government to abolish the Regional Development Agencies and the Regional Government Offices.

Perhaps what is most striking about the UK cultural environment are the extensive and continuing changes to policies and structures over the past 20 years. Much more change has occurred in this period than in the preceding 45. The newly elected government (2010) has announced significant structural changes to the cultural support system as part of cost-cutting measures.

In England in particular, there had been a considerable increase in central government support in recent years (especially from 2000-2005) to address previous underfunding, while the Lottery provided an influx of new money which has changed the UK cultural landscape. However, the cultural sector will face a period of considerable austerity over the next few years as the result of reductions in financial support at national and local levels announced in 2010. Conceivably this, together with the structural changes underway, could undermine policy coherence and the delivery of government objectives, as well as impact adversely on the cultural infrastructure.


Chapter published: 15-04-2011


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