The bleak future of the arts with new Secretary of State

16th September 2022

The extremely sad news of the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II last week has been a shock to many of us. She has been a symbol of stability and strength over her 70-year reign and will be sorely missed by millions.

The last week has been a profound moment of monumental change for our country, with the proclamation of a new King, King Charlies III, and the appointment for our 56th Prime Minister, Liz Truss.

There is still a great deal of uncertainty in the days and weeks ahead as we all navigate through this very new and sensitive time. We have a new monarch, a new Prime Minister and a new cabinet.

We want to discuss Rt Hon Michelle Donelan MP, the newly appointed Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

On the day that she was appointed Culture Secretary, she wrote on her Facebook page:

I have sat with Liz Truss in Cabinet for the last 10 months and I know she shares my priorities for a bolder, stronger Britain.

Helping to make our country a digital and STEM superpower has been a priority of mine ever since I entered government, so I am incredibly excited to get going on this new challenge.

My priorities from the off are:

  • Supporting digital and tech innovation by cutting red tape, ensuring it sits at the heart of our plan for growing the UK economy
  • Roll out fast broadband to every corner of the country to help turbocharge connectivity and growth
  • Promoting free speech while working to protect children online
  • Proudly promoting and protecting British culture and our incredible arts sector
  • Building on a remarkable few years for British sport and being the voice of grassroots sport in government
  • Working with businesses to build and expand key skills in digital, media, cyber and creative industries
  • Recognising that world class businesses need world class cyber security
  • Making sure the UK’s media landscape reflects the demands of the public and fits our modern way of life
  • Putting the British people’s priorities for growth, freedom and fairness at the heart of my decision making”

It’s very interesting to see that the majority of her priorities surrounds digital and cyber security. Her point about ‘proudly promoting and protecting British culture and our incredible arts sector’ just seems quite meaningless. A possible throw away comment. It’ll be interesting to see how this point progresses.

As the 11th Culture Secretary in twelve years, we thought that the arts would be firmly on her agenda, because it certainly hasn’t been for any of her predecessors.

Lyn Gardener from The Stage puts it perfectly in her most recent opinion piece: ‘One culture secretary after another shows the government doesn't take the arts seriously’.

Does everyone who has been appointed Culture Secretary just not enjoy the arts, see them as any benefit or simply don’t care about the industry? It certainly seems that way.

Over the years, we’ve witnessed cuts to theatre and arts spending and more recently we’ve seen cuts to university arts courses and schools to direct more money to STEM subjects.

We all know just how vital the arts are to us all, particularly from a young age. It enriches lives, sparks creativity and imagination, encourages communication and discipline, and increases concentration and self-esteem. There are so many positives that come out of our industry, and we need to be taken seriously.

As David Hill Founding Director of ArtReach asks in his open letter published by Arts Professional “Are you somebody who passionately engages with arts and culture, attends, participates and understands the vital role of the arts in our nation’s health and well-being? Or are you taking on this role simply as a career politician?

I’m going to assume the former, and that you will want to implement this wish list of initiatives that will place the arts in the UK centre stage, where they belong, as important to this country’s people as education, health and social care – because they are intrinsic to all those key aspects of our life.”

As an arts expert, he goes on to state what should be on her priority list, “If you are a passionate engager with the arts and culture”.

Donelan already has a lot on her to do list from her predecessor, Nadine Dorries, including continued discussions about the privatisation of Channel 4, which has not only faced huge criticism from the industry, but politicians too.

John McVay, Chief Executive of Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television (PACT), has asked Donelan to reconsider this and said it would be a ‘nonsensical’ decision to proceed.

She’ll also be reviewing the BBC Licence fee, which she already demands must be 'scrapped altogether'.

The energy crisis is a huge concern for the industry, particularly theatres and other arts venues.

Eleanor Lloyd, president of the Society of London Theatre (SOLT) was one of the first to write a statement to the newly appointed Donelan to say: “Theatres are doing everything they can to be as energy efficient as possible but like our colleagues across the cultural, creative and hospitality industries there are undoubtedly tough times ahead.

“Theatres are committed to a plethora of sustainability initiatives including cutting energy consumption, but the reality is that for many, they will see their energy bills double and even triple which will have significant operational consequences. We look forward to working with the new Secretary of State on these issues.

I am deeply concerned about the selling of Channel 4 and of course getting rid of the BBC licence fee.

The energy crisis will decimate small theatre venues if something isn’t done, or support given. The number of visitors pre-Covid just aren’t returning so theatres are already having to tighten their purse strings. How will they cope and recover following these huge energy price hikes?

How are our industry freelancers going to survive with the cost-of-living crisis? As Philippa Childs from Bectu says to the new Secretary of State: “Instead of undermining much-loved cultural institutions like the BBC and Channel 4, we will be looking to the new Culture Secretary to work with us to champion the self-employed and freelance workforce in government, through fighting for a better paid workforce and fairer working conditions. We urgently need strong leadership and sustained support to protect creative jobs and safeguard the arts for all.

There are going to be some very tough times ahead for our industry. Donelan needs to get her priorities right for the arts to give us a fair chance to survive through these turbulent times.

We do after all have a world class culture sector with a hugely talented workforce, so why aren’t we celebrating this and helping this industry and our people?

Sadly, and worryingly, I just don’t think she is up to the job or really understands the peril that we are in.

As Jane Martison said in her open letter to Michelle Donelan in the Guardian: “Entertainment and the media has long been used to distract people from harsher realities, such as not being able to keep warm or eat. Don’t go down that road. Let culture be a source of strength and enrichment. It’s a proper job. Do it properly.”

My sentiments exactly.