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  Home > Blogs > Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt

Austerity and Culture: Letter from the United Kingdom

Originally Published in Norwegian on Billedkunst in 2013

Austerity as Inevitability
Before embarking upon a discussion of UK cultural policy in times of financial crisis, it is necessary to offer a brief comment on the economic basis of nation states under capitalism. The first point to acknowledge is that the main purpose of governments within a market economy is to shore up and invigorate private business, reinforcing state power in the process. The main way in which governments secure the means necessary to achieve this is through incurring debt, by issuing bonds which are largely bought by players within the financial industry, thus consolidating the interdependence of governments and capital.[1]

When the US sub-prime mortgage crisis sent shockwaves rippling through the financial markets in 2007–8, Gordon Brown – a Scotsman who had overseen continued deregulation of the financial markets as the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer – was forced to look on from his hard-won role as Prime Minister as New Labour’s perpetuation of the neoliberal project (instigated by Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s) faltered. As 2009 staggered into view, Scotland’s two major financial institutions – Royal Bank of Scotland Group and Halifax Bank of Scotland – teetered on the brink of collapse, necessitating a rescue package that swelled the national debt. In turn, this provided the UK government with the impetus to implement swingeing cuts to the public sector, amplified under the coalition of the Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats which assumed power in May 2010.

Contrary to popular belief, sovereign debt is not generally serviced through tax revenue but through incurring further debt by issuing more bonds. In order to maintain such expanding debt, nation states need to be perceived as creditworthy. When the financial crisis struck, attention turned to the credit ratings of Eurozone countries, and, as a result of this additional scrutiny, Greece became unable to secure the private financing necessary to service its debt repayments in 2009–10. In spring 2013, the UK joined nine of its neighbours in losing AAA status, marking it out as something of a credit risk. This is central to the present discussion because the fact that existing sovereign debt is serviced through the accumulation of further debt means that the austerity measures currently sweeping Europe are aimed at reassuring credit ratings agencies and potential investors that the state is doing all it can to secure the conditions for capitalist growth. Despite all the ministerial hand-wringing, the reduction in public services taking place under the banner of austerity is the most effective way in which solvent nation states can prove themselves reliable debtors in order to achieve their desired goal of encouraging economic growth. In other words, in adopting a market economy, governments have willingly entered into a system which compels them to penalise their own citizens when the system calls for it.

The Impact of Austerity upon the Cultural Field

In October 2010, the coalition government oversaw a cut of almost 30 percent to its main cultural funder, Arts Council England, marking out the cultural field as a sector that society could afford to live with in a diminished form. This represented a drop in Arts Council England’s income from £449m to £349m for the period 2012–14 (increasingly supplemented by funds from the National Lottery, which had hitherto been precluded). The following March, the council passed half of this £100m cut on to the arts organisations it supported, carving its list of 849 regularly funded organisations into a ‘national portfolio’ of 695 organisations. Among these National Portfolio Organisations, many experienced a diminution of their funding, a tiny minority obtained an exponential increase and a handful of new organisations entered the ranks of three-year funding security, apparently in a bid to ensure broader geographical spread.[2]

In this savage reshuffle, 206 organisations lost all their arts council funding, seriously compromising their continued operation.[3] When these defunded organisations are plotted by art form, it is immediately clear that the visual arts fared particularly badly under the new regime. Beyond this, one can detect an ideological slant to this selective starvation tactic in the ‘confident snuffing out of wayward and antagonistic energies’.[4] This is most evident in the case of Platform – which, since 1983, has been commissioning creative responses to some of the most topical political and environmental issues under the banner of ‘arts, activism, education, research’[5] – and that of Mute Publishing, which has consistently exposed the ideology behind the knowledge economy under the tagline ‘we gladly feast on those who would subdue us’.[6] In this way, institutions engaging in a vital critique of the prevailing climate risk being lost to the cultural field.

In order to judge whether arts organisations merit state funding, Arts Council England uses two main metrics – visitor numbers and external income. As has been convincingly demonstrated, both of these measures are better suited to large organisations, with the profiles necessary to attract audiences and the resources to dedicate to fundraising.[7] This prompted the formation of Common Practice, London – an advocacy group of small visual arts organisations comprised of Afterall, Chisenhale Gallery, Electra, Gasworks, LUX, Matt’s Gallery, Mute Publishing, The Showroom and Studio Voltaire – at the centre of a wider network of around fifty similar organisations throughout the UK. As an antidote to the application of measurement techniques inappropriate to the work of small arts organisations, the Common Practice network argues for more nuanced, qualitative understandings of the value generated by organisations of this scale, which has recently been centred on a consideration of the potential benefits of such work to individuals and society.[8]

The Ideology of Cultural Value

The question of cultural value is a hot topic in policy-making circles in the UK, prompting the Arts and Humanities Research Council – the main funder of academic research in the field – to instigate something called the Cultural Value Project, which aims to articulate the individual and social value of cultural activities. As outlined above, recent decades have witnessed a convergence of political forces in the shared goal of reinforcing the free market. However, until recently, slight rhetorical differences have been evident in relation to definitions of cultural value. The position of the centre left has been exemplified by Matthew Taylor, former policy advisor to Tony Blair and current chief executive of the Royal Society of the Arts. Where those before him had made a distinction between the intrinsic and instrumental value of the arts,[9] Taylor followed researchers at the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies (University of Warwick) and pre-empted the approach of the Cultural Value Project team in dismissing the tension between intrinsic and instrumental value as a ‘false and sterile dichotomy’.[10] Instead, Taylor proposed a new spectrum, spanning artistic instrumentalism and public good instrumentalism, in which artists are urged to abandon any consideration of the inherent value of their work and arts organisations are compelled to think of themselves as social centres and argue their worth in terms of increased participation (rather than passive spectatorship).[11]

The other end of the rhetorical spectrum is evident in a collection of texts, commissioned by the centre right think tank, Policy Exchange, and edited by Munira Mirza, Cultural Advisor to the Mayor of London (Conservative Party politician, Boris Johnson).[12] This poured scorn on the idea that culture might have (measurable) social value, arguing in favour of artistic freedom and audience edification. In this way, the battle lines were drawn – with the centre left urging artists and arts organisations to instrumentalise themselves for the benefit of capitalist society, and the centre right advocating art as a highly individualised experience with intrinsic, rather than social, value.

In April 2013, the UK’s Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Maria Miller (Conservative MP for Basingstoke), gave a speech to ‘arts and cultural leaders’ at the British Museum.[13] Perhaps unsurprisingly, Miller’s speech was littered with the kind of obfuscation which leads listeners to conclude that the funding of culture from tax revenue is somehow connected to reduction of the national debt. In attempting to make the case for continued government support in this area, Miller embraced both the intrinsic and instrumental value of the arts. As renewed evidence of the fact that ideologies collide in attempts to bolster the market, she cited Matthew Taylor’s description of arts organisations as businesses with creative flair. At the same time, she placed culture at the centre of a return to economic growth, envisaging that ‘the public funding distributed by the Arts Council should effectively act as seed funding, or venture capital: giving confidence to others to invest in the creativity and innovation of our cultural organisations’. Such investment, she foresaw, would be drawn from the philanthropic or commercial sectors. This signals a return to Thatcherite policy which argued that diminishing state patronage should be supplemented by the private sector.[14] In turn, this reinforces the self-fulfilling prophecy that those arts organisations being granted subsidy would be those most capable of raising income from external sources.

In making the case for the centrality of culture to economic growth, Miller followed her New Labour forbears in harnessing culture to tourism, referring to Liverpool’s 2008 stint as European Capital of Culture generating £750m for the local area. But, when this claim is interrogated further, it transpires that much of this purported income may be attributed to the mystical metric of ‘global media coverage value’, rather than investment in the local economy.[15] Working on the basis of this misconception, Miller asked her audience of arts administrators to position themselves ‘squarely within the visitor economy’. At the same time, she invoked the creative industries – elaborated under New Labour – as an invaluable cultural export. In his first major speech as Prime Minister, David Cameron had identified a key part of rebalancing the economy to reside in support for knowledge-based industries, including the creative industries,[16] defined as ‘those industries which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of economic property’.[17] Embracing culture in greasing the wheels of Britain’s overseas trade, Miller cited the success of blockbuster creative productions from Matilda to Skyfall while noting the presence of Arts Council England on the Creative Industries Council.

Viewed in this light, it is hardly surprising that the visual arts suffered such profound casualties in the last round of funding cuts, as art in its non-commercial form has largely been excluded from definitions of the creative industries. Tellingly, in the run-up to the 2011 funding decision, artists played a significant part in the Save the Arts campaign that aimed to protect this endangered sector. Instigated by the Turning Point Network, which describes itself as a ‘national consortium of over 2,000 arts organisations and artists dedicated to working together and finding new ways to support the arts in the UK’, this campaign played into economic rhetoric by framing art as a burgeoning industry.[18] By contrast, artists have been conspicuous in their absence from discussions around the intrinsic and social value of their work. One exception to this was a response to Maria Miller’s speech by Gavin Wade, director of the artist-run Eastside Projects in Birmingham, which insisted that cultural, rather than economic, measurements of cultural value were needed.[19] However, this attempt to reinstate discussions around the intrinsic value of art fails to acknowledge the foregoing – that, within a market economy, culture is only valued to the extent to which it can contribute to either economic growth or stabilising a fraught society. In the funding cycle for 2015–18, Arts Council England has announced that its National Portfolio Organisations will suffer cuts of 5 percent in real terms, again exposing them to uncertainty.[20]

Interpretations of Cultural Policy in the Devolved Administrations

The picture sketched above pertains to policies being formulated at the UK government’s headquarters in Westminster. However, in recent years, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have achieved a measure of autonomy over their affairs, notably those in the cultural field.

Having fought for decades to detach themselves from a Union which has historically perpetuated gross injustices in the North of Ireland, republican politicians representing Sinn Féin entered the coalition government at Stormont in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, with former IRA commander, Martin McGuinness, being appointed Deputy First Minister in 2007. However, rather than opposing Westminster-derived doctrine in the field of culture, McGuinness has been pivotal in securing the nomination of his home city, Derry, as the first UK City of Culture for 2013. The origins of this title are firmly rooted in the neoliberal strategy of culture-led regeneration, which sees culture instrumentalised to tourism and its spurious claims of income generation.[21] This prompts serious questions about ways in which the iniquities that are endemic to the free market model are being perpetuated in a society founded upon inequality.[22]

The most exciting prospect in relation to City of Culture has been the fact that the original bid included the provision that Derry’s artists and arts organisations would be entrusted with the formulation of local cultural policy from 2014 to 2020 through a temporary committee called the Cultural Partnership Forum. In principle, this represented a significant shift away from top-down policy-making by Derry City Council in favour of those responsible for cultural production and dissemination determining their own fate. In turn, it was hoped that this would engage historically divided communities in the local generation of culture. However, as 2013 has progressed, the Cultural Partnership Forum has become increasingly fearful that it would be blamed for City of Culture’s failure to meet the ambitious targets which have been set for tourism, job creation and income generation. This has led the forum to allow its powers to be subsumed by Derry City Council, which promptly issued an invitation to private companies – rather than knowledgeable individuals, non-profit organisations or academic departments – to tender for the provision of a cultural strategy.[23] Interested agencies were asked to indicate their intention to apply and forward any questions to the council by 5 July 2013, but announcement of the invitation to tender was not posted on the Cultural Partnership Forum website until four days after this deadline had passed.[24]

Meanwhile, Scotland is poised on the brink of a referendum about its secession from the Union – a debate which is characterised by a manifest policy vacuum. Whatever the outcome of the independence referendum, Scotland will struggle to stem the tide of neoliberal policy-making that characterises its cultural field. In 2004, the then-Labour government announced a consultation process which promised ‘a new cultural vision for our country and a radically different way of delivering and sustaining our cultural services’.[25] The upshot of this year-long consultation – which systematically excluded visual artists from its considerations – was the finding that ‘Individual artists are one-person businesses. They need to have all the start up skills and backing open to other small businesses in the creative arts sector. […] The fundamental challenge is to sell more visual art’.[26] This led to the adoption of an idea proposed the year before the Cultural Commission began its work – the formation of Creative Scotland, as a merger between the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen, which came into being on 1 July 2010.[27]

From its flawed beginnings, Creative Scotland – chaired by Sir Sandy Crombie, Senior Independent Director of the Royal Bank of Scotland Group – has proposed an investment model for artists which tallies with Maria Miller’s economic understanding of culture and the creative industries. At the same time, the creeping substitution of government funding for lottery funding, in evidence in England, has been enthusiastically replayed north of the border. In spring 2012, Creative Scotland announced that organisations in receipt of flexible funding (lasting up to three years) would be compelled to apply for more precarious one-off project funding instead. At this point, Scotland’s creative practitioners – who had largely remained silent over the eight years during which these changes have taken root – were galvanised into action, signing an open letter to the chief executive of Creative Scotland which eventually brought about his resignation. But it remains to be seen how the recalcitrant funding body will improve the lot of the organisations and artists it is charged with supporting.

Where Next for the UK Culture Sector?

As shown here, culture has been unambiguously harnessed to the future sustainability of a discredited socio-economic system. Yet, little attempt has been made to resist this from within the cultural field. At a pragmatic level, there has been widespread acceptance of the need for austerity and little analysis of the underlying causes. Despite very public solidarities having been formed between arts organisations, few voices have been raised in protest when one (or 206) of their number has been culled. Equally absent has been any sign of alliances being formed with individuals and organisations ravaged by austerity beyond the cultural field. In this sense, the historical divide between art and society is being sustained by those working in the cultural field at the same time as the field is being prevailed upon to instrumentalise itself for the benefit of iniquitous society.

With the UK having acted as a forerunner of the creative industries debate, certain quarters seem determined to explore the individual and social value of culture, and others are keen not to let discussions around the intrinsic value of artistic work disappear from the agenda. While there may be merits in both of these approaches, particularly in relation to the emancipatory potential of art, the extent to which this can be explored reaches natural limits within the present system.[28] It is incumbent upon arts organisations, and the artists they represent, to probe and disrupt these limits.



[1] For a compelling explication of sovereign debt, see The Wine and Cheese Society of Greater London, ‘Sovereign debt and the crisis in the Eurozone’, Kittens, issue 3, April 2012:

[2]Arts council funding: get the full decisions list’, The Guardian, 30 March 2011.

[3]Arts council cuts listed: get the data’, The Guardian, 30 March 2011.

[4] Pauline van Mourik Broekman, ‘Springerin discussion on art, critique and value’, Springerin, 27 June 2012.

[5] See Platform website.

[6] See Metamute site.

[9] See, for example, the work of François Matarasso.

[10] Eleonora Belfiore and Oliver Bennett, ‘Rethinking the Social Impacts of the Arts’, International Journal of Cultural Policy, Volume 13, issue 2, 2007, p. 148.

[11] John Knell and Matthew Taylor, Arts Funding, Austerity and the Big Society: Remaking the case for the arts (London: RSA, 2011).

[12] Munira Mirza, Culture Vultures: Is UK Arts Policy Damaging the Arts? (London: Policy Exchange, 2006).

[14] For a discussion of this, see Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, Third Wave Privatisation of Cultural Provision in the UK’, Trondheim Kunsthall, 2012.

[15] See Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, ‘Introduction’, Conflict, Community, Culture, 2013.

[17] Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Creative Industries Economic Estimates, 9 December 2010.

[18] See Save the Arts blog.

[19] Gavin Wade, ‘Economics is Meaningless’, 24 April 2013.

[20] Arts Council England, ‘We announce our 2015 to 2018 investment plans’, 24 July 2013.

[21] See Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, ‘Misguided Loyalties’, Conflict, Community, Culture, op cit.

[22] For a consideration of this, see Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (London: Penguin, 2010).

[24] Previously on Cultural Partnership forum website (now obsolete).

[25] Frank McAveety, Cultural Policy Statement (Edinburgh: Scottish Executive, 2004), p. 1.

[27] For a consideration of the flawed process which gave rise to Creative Scotland, see Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, ‘The Cultural Commission from a Visual Arts Perspective’, 2008.

[28] For some cautionary words about the measurement of social value, see Eleanora Belfiore, ‘On Bullshit in Cultural Policy Practice and Research: notes from the British case’, International Journal of Cultural Policy, Volume 15, Issue 3, August 2009.

 Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt is the author of To Defend the Revolution Is to Defend Culture: The Cultural Policy of the Cuban Revolution.



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