Who needs art anyway?

Saturday 20 October, 10.30am until 12.00pm, Fountain Room

The title of the Arts Council’s major 10-year vision, ‘Achieving great art for everyone’, captures the contemporary drive to increase audiences for the arts. But the associated literature reveals a palpable defensiveness. Over the past 20 years, arts institutions have become obsessed with their lack of reach. Despite the queues outside blockbuster exhibitions and the popular appeal of West End theatre, arts policymakers have worried that too many people don’t seem bothered about classical music or contemporary art, and what audiences there are seem too old, too posh, too white. Attracting ‘hard to reach’ audiences – urban youth, diverse ethnic groups, the socially excluded – has become the holy grail.

Often this mission seems less about simply making the arts affordable, for example, and more a desperate attempt to dragoon us into opera houses and museums, whether we like it or not. And the justifications for such efforts have little to do with art. It is asserted that people need the arts for the sake of their health and wellbeing, social mobility, economic prosperity, and good citizenship. We are told choirs can build community cohesion; making music can engage would-be rioters; plays can teach empathy; art-related skills make people more employable. Former culture secretary Margaret Hodge stressed the importance of the arts for ‘nurturing our sense of Britishness, of finding common identity and creating a common sense of belonging’. But how credible is this? Are those who remain cold in the face of Rembrandt, or indifferent to the beauty of Beethoven, a social problem?

Critics argue that arts organisations risk compromising their art by obsessing over audiences. After all, the simplest way to get people through the door might be to offer the familiar and unchallenging work they already know they like, rather than working to build an appreciative audience for new and difficult work. If we push the arts as a public good, do we threaten their role as a private pleasure, freely chosen? Should people be free to reject as well as to fall in love with orchestral music, sculpture, ballet? Are those who enjoy a rich and varied experience of the arts in danger of sneering at those who don’t get it? Or is there a greater danger that if we don’t ensure everyone appreciates the arts, they will become no more than a luxury for those who have the time, education and money to enjoy them?

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Stella Duffy
writer and theatre-maker; award-winning author of short stories, plays and novels

David Edgar
playwright; president of the Writers' Guild; author, How Plays Work; playwright, Written on the Heart, Pentecost

Munira Mirza
advisor on arts and philanthropy; former deputy mayor of London for education and culture; author, The Politics of Culture: the case for universalism

Andrea Rose
director, Visual Arts and Strategic Programmes, British Council; governor, University of the Arts, London; author, Gagarin in Britain

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there

Produced by
Dr Wendy Earle impact development officer, Birkbeck, University of London; convenor, Academy of Ideas Arts and Society Forum
Dr Tiffany Jenkins writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there
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