Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Culture Secretary

In Saturday's Guardian, there was an interview by John Harris with the Culture Secretary, James Purnell. The underlying suggestion seemed to be that there is a huge change going on in Cultural policy; and the interview is timed to coincide with Brian McMaster's review of public arts funding, which seems to shift the emphasis away from the last ten years of "art as social engineering" and towards something called "excellence". In theory, this should be no bad thing. The arts have been moithering around since 1997, trying to prove the social value of projects, instead of being honest about what they are actually doing. Purnell and McMaster have also rather adroitly wrong-footed the many organisations currently protesting against the Arts Council's recent Night of the Long Knives: the protests have all been couched in the language of social inclusion (e.g "we cater for children, pensioners, refugee communities and disabled people"), at exactly the moment the DCMS has moved away from this towards a language of artistic quality. My concern is that this may just be a smoke-screen. Reading between the lines of the interview, the emphasis on quality looks very like an excuse to cut organisations which would just have to be funded if social inclusion were the key criterion. When Purnell says that he won't "tolerate average work because it happens to be in a particular location", it's clearly the voice of the man who cuts funds, rather than the man who provides them.

I like the way he defines "excellence", however. "To have [people's] meanings shaken up and think about the world in a different way". That sounds like what we do. How far it will be possible for public policy to mould an arts sector which does this is something only time will tell. I just hope we don't see a return to the definition of "excellence" we saw in the Glory of the Garden days, when the great monoliths of the cultural sector gobbled up every penny going. Excellence is not the same as centralisation, nor is it the same as scale. I hope Purnell stands by his own definition.

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