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Museum Funding Final

The government is pretending to support culture while it destroys it

Don’t be fooled by funding announcements for ‘culture’ – it serves as a decoy to its wider destruction

The government has outlined plans for a £250 million funding boost for culture. The announcement was made by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Nicky Morgan, whose credentials include serving as a solicitor for corporate law firm Travers Smith, where she specialized in mergers and acquisitions before becoming a Tory MP in 2010. Nice as it might seem on the surface, in real terms, at best, the funding amounts to a somewhat facile gesture, and at worst, a cynical ploy to distract from the wider destruction of creativity and culture which has taken place over the past ten years.

Between 2010 and 2016, it was reported that the culture budgets of local authorities had faced real-term cuts of £236 million, while £109 million had been cut from museum funding. In another report by the County Councils Network, it was claimed that since 2010, £400 million had been lost from local authority spending on arts and culture. Don’t let Tory promises fool you then: these small concessions still amount to the wholesale theft of basic services including libraries, as well as funding for an entire generation to participate in wider cultural activity, from the British taxpayer.

What’s more, the government has prescribed specific allocations for the funds, directed towards major refurbishments and maintenance work at national and local museums. While this is necessary, it represents the somewhat disingenuous supplanting of that word ‘culture’ to mean ‘restoration’, and more fundamentally, ‘British heritage’. In this respect, it might have been more accurately termed a heritage fund, designed to preserve Britain’s legacy institutions while having very little to do with new cultural production. 

“We find ourselves hurtling towards a cultural climate steeped in the past, and the mawkish aesthetics of national sentiment”

We’ve been seeing this happen increasingly over the last few years and particularly since the formation of the Tory and Lib Dem coalition government in 2010, where the language of ‘culture’ started to veer dangerously into paternalistic waters. At the expense of authentic cultural production, and the impossibility for artists to fund themselves using funding bodies, or more importantly, the dole (bands including the likes of Pulp have famously claimed that they would never been able to exist without government benefits), we find ourselves hurtling towards a cultural climate steeped in the past, and the mawkish aesthetics of national sentiment. 

Culture has increasingly become something we do on a Saturday afternoon. A pleasant day out to institutions that bring a direct return to capitalism: galleries, museums, exorbitantly expensive theatre shows and musical performances. With every day that passes, ‘culture’ refers more and more to these touristic activities, rather than something that we participate in, and create ourselves; rather than any authentic expression of a collective identity, or community. It’s part of the growing ‘experience economy’ – things we do to say that we’ve done them, from visiting the blockbuster shows at Tate Britain, to eating our dinner suspended from a crane 100 feet above the O2 arena. Cinema, which once constituted a cheap, affordable form of collective entertainment, has become fetishised beyond all recognition by immersive theatre experiences sold at a £75 price-tag.

“Culture has increasingly become something we do on a Saturday afternoon. A pleasant day out to institutions that bring a direct return to capitalism”

With there being so few challengers to this pervasive view of culture, we stand to become absorbed by, and uncritical of the harmful mechanisms that underscore its existence, seeking to extort money from people at every possible opportunity, but also peddling a view of culture that is defined by profit-makers, and an old school establishment whose origins extend to the earliest days of imperialism.  

But beyond that, too, the announcement also belies an effort to gentrify impoverished areas. The funding will also be extended to The Cultural Development Fund which saw £20 million directed to Grimsby, Thames Estuary, Plymouth, Wakefield and Worcester last year, in an effort to ‘regenerate’ the areas through “heritage, creativity and culture”. Instead of supporting these communities through local authority funding that would create stronger and more resilient communities with the possibility of producing a more authentic, grass-roots culture, it demonstrates an effort to promote tourism and business, and to boost institutions that once again, provide a direct return to capitalism. 

We hear echoes of the project to regenerate Liverpool’s Ten Streets and Docklands areas – rebranded as a ‘creativity district’ with the hope of attracting those natural bedfellows: artists, makers and tech startups. Using a set of bewildering corporate buzzwords, director of the York National Railway Museum, Judith McNicol claimed that the new fund offered, “a springboard for unlocking our role as the cultural heartbeat of York Central, one of the most ambitious regeneration projects in Europe.” 

We all have a role in resisting this strange doublespeak, and the quiet, but by no means harmless supplanting of culture with the language of commerce, business and profit. Don’t be fooled by the Tories. Beyond writing endless biographies of Winston Churchill, they couldn’t care less about culture, or creativity. 

Order Nathalie Olah’s book Steal As Much As You Can here.