The Culture White Paper: A Response

I’ve just finished reading the DCMS Culture White Paper, published yesterday, ‘the first white paper for culture in more than 50 years and only the second ever published’ (p.5). I started reading it on my computer screen, but then had to print it out, realising I needed to scribble over it (violently at times) while I was reading. This response is a very immediate, quite visceral one – my opinions might of course change as I share ideas about it with more people and think about it a bit more – but I just felt moved to pour forth some initial rambling thoughts.

I do laud some things: that there is a government report about culture, for example. That my home city of Sheffield is mentioned for a new £1million arts hub (p.32), and given recognition for its affordable studios for artists at Yorkshire Artspace (p.37). That there is ambition to display the Government Art Collection more widely (p.43), and that access and engagement are central. And particularly exciting for my own rummaging interests, that the Museums Review will consider access to collections in store (p.57). I am encouraged by the paper’s recognition of a digital world (p.38), and the need for more digitisation and access to collections including through crowdsourcing, transferring authority out there (p.39). I learnt that there is such a thing as the culture diary, ‘a master list for culture’ (p.43), and that DCMS will continue to work together with the Wolfson Foundation to fund capital projects (where is the money for infrastructure, though?) (p.53). I really do look forward to the Museums Review, and hope the opportunity is not wasted, but is one with genuine new findings and insights, and with data that can be used for change and action.

But the cynic in me asks why there is now this report about culture. And what is this culture?  By p.13, if not before, I was cross. It is a paper purportedly about culture, yet one which has an extremely dubious definition of culture (if it can be defined). ‘Culture no longer simply means being familiar with a select list of works of art and architecture…’ Really?! Did it ever mean this?! In whose world? Certainly not mine, and not even in the Oxford English Dictionary (a bastion of culture if ever there was one…) where the history of the term is painted as complex:

in modern use… the term is frequently used as a general term to denote the arts and other aspects of intellectual life, without any special reference to their historical development (nor to their connection with any particular society), and hence again with less transparent connection with earlier senses of the word…

But in the White Paper, culture is ‘the accumulated influence of creativity, the arts, museums, galleries, libraries, archives and heritage upon all our lives’. Everything, merged together as though these are all the same. The cultural sectors are defined as those organisations and individuals that ‘together preserve, reflect and promote who we are as a nation, in all our rich diversity’ (italics mine). No no no! Wrong on so many levels. What about those that create, challenge, encourage questioning, making, new ideas, open experimenting? Arts. Culture is not just about preservation. And while the term ‘reflect’ is one I would usually use positively and creatively, here, it is relegated to something didactic: it sounds as though it is the cultural institutions alone that have some sort of authority to reflect to the public who they are. Really? Them and us. And what about culture as ‘promoting nationhood’? Don’t get me started…

So I continued reading. Section 1.1 ‘Culture should be an essential part of every child’s education, both in and out of school’. Yes, of course. But then I despair… What is meant by this? The government returns to Gradgrind’s ‘facts, facts, facts’. For here, ‘knowledge of great works of art, great music, great literature and great plays, and their creators, is an important part of every child’s education’. Knowledge of. What about encouraging the creation of new things? What about responding to? Where is our imagination? How does making art fit in? What is meant by great? Who defines this? Why do we have to know about, rather than just make and do? Knowledge is not just about: it is active, sensory, creative, emotional. Just because I know about Shakespeare does not have any bearing whatsoever on my own imaginative response to the things that are being fed in. And it continues, ‘so too is being taught to play a musical instrument, to draw, paint and make things, to dance and to act’. Now, if this sentence did not include the ‘being taught’ bit, I would like it a lot more. But it does. For in this report, we are passive agents, empty vessels to be filled. Knowledge and skills: what and how. No why. No questions.

This paternalism can be found throughout: ‘The government expects all museums, theatres, galleries, opera houses and other arts organisations in receipt of public money to reach out to everyone regardless of background, education or geography’. Great, and of course this is to be welcomed (despite its extraordinary list of elite cultural places). Organisations ‘reach out’ –but where is the dialogue, the shared understanding, the letting go, the community reaching in and out of the organisation, the empowerment? And where is the funding for this ambition? There is no additional money to support the ambitions of the White Paper. It is certainly not in the local authorities whose sources are being cut constantly. How are the regions, other than a few select places mentioned time and again for various initiatives, to carry out these ambitions without the resources to do so? Resilience is the buzz word of the day (and has been for rather a long time now): ‘organisations… must also think more broadly how they will adapt their business models and financial strategies to deal with potential challenges to funding’. In between the lines, if we don’t become successful businesses, or good at crowd funding, or finding a wealthy sponsor, then this government is actually not interested in culture at all. Hmm.

Ironic too to suggest that ‘national museums are looking to build on their existing regional presence’ (p.35) when we all know of the recent debacle of the NMM photography’s move away from Bradford to London. And what on earth is the GREAT campaign (p.44)? Apparently £113.5 million has been spent on this since 2011. Now I work in this sector, and I’ve never heard of it, and when I consulted my colleagues in the office, neither had they. Whiffs of empire. Moving on to workforce diversity: this is vital, and the ambition to publish data on leadership of chairs and trustees is a significant step in the right direction (p.27), but we have heard this before. Does investing £10million in Skills for the Future really change a culture? There is still so much to do just in terms of women’s lack of leadership in a sector full of women. We need radical change, not just another paper. Words, words, words. Curious turns of phrase litter the document: ‘culturally ambitious young people’ (p.22) – what about just ‘young people’? ‘Soft power’ (p. 42, p.57) – what is this? Where is the action? The list of organisations involved in the report is lengthy, but has some notable exceptions. Where is the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies? Why was it not consulted? GEM and Engage are also missing.

And finally, the Appendix contains the ways of measuring the impact of the ambition. Output indicators are all about ‘increase in engaging in culture’… What does this mean? We all know there is a huge difference between bums on seats and real engagement. A quick visit (or as some organisations literally just count those walking through on their way to somewhere else), is not the same as a long-term relationship. So why is this paper so insistent on evaluating impact through quantitative statistics? Where is the measure of quality of experience? So many assumptions and unanswered questions. But that will do for now. Action is what is needed. Let’s hope the Museums Review leads to change. And of course that this White Paper does too.

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