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Archive for March, 2007

Prime Minister Tony Blair speaking on the Arts March 6 2007

Tuesday, March 20th, 2007

On March 6, British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke gave an important speech at Tate Modern on the arts. The intended speech is reprinted in full in the Guardian.

Here are some highlights – the first several introductory paragraphs and then statements referring specifically to museums. Not the least interesting statistics are those concerning the increases in attendances at the National Museums since admission was made free, including increases from particular socio-economic groupings which are historically less inclined to visit museums.

There are also interesting observations about “arms length” administration and funding rather than control.

These statements can surely be used in advocacy in Australia.

Years ago, before coming to government, I said that we would make the arts and culture part of our “core script”. In other words, it was no longer to be on the periphery, an add-on, a valued bit of fun when the serious work of government was done; but rather it was to be central, an essential part of the narrative about the character of a new, different, changed Britain.

When I said this all those years back, I think there was a certain amount of scepticism. But at last week’s Downing Street seminar in advance of this speech, one participant said we would look back on the last 10 years as a “golden age” for the arts. I will come on to why that has happened in a moment.

But the important point to realise is why I said it. I didn’t say it because I thought we, as a government, were of great importance to you, the arts, but rather because you, the arts, were going to be of fundamental importance to the country.

The reason for this will be spelt out in the policy reviews shortly to be published across government and is utterly critical to understanding why arts and culture matter to a modern nation like Britain.


So when more children get access to the joy of art, it is not the art alone that they learn; it is the art of living, thinking and creating. They may never be, probably won’t ever be, an artist or a dancer or a designer, but in whatever job, in whichever walk of life, they will carry an idea that is not just about the buying and selling, but about what makes the ordinary, special. When people on low incomes can visit museums free of charge, and see great works of art, they take something of the inspiration with them. A nation that cares about art will not just be a better nation. In the early 21st Century it will be a more successful one.

It is worth a brief counter-factual exercise. Imagine what the world would have been like if we had continued with the funding regime and the policies that we inherited. Many of the country’s finest regional theatres would have closed or would exist as shadows of themselves, on a diet of light drama. Many orchestras would have gone to the wall. There would be no new programmes for art education. Museums, far from being full, would have gradually diminished in importance as charging reduced the audience to the middle class. I’m not sure there would be a British film industry, or at least not one nearly so healthy, or the same huge success at the National Theatre.

Instead government funding has doubled since 1997 and is now done on a more stable 3-year basis. Free admission has meant that there are 42 million visits each year to museums and galleries.

We have been able to run very effective policies to keep ticket prices down. In the case of national museums, of course, entry is free.… visits to national museums have risen by almost 30 million.

Between 2002/03 and 2004/05 the number of people from lower socio-economic groups visiting government-sponsored museums increased by almost 30%. The Renaissance in the Regions programme has helped attract almost three quarters of a million new visitors from communities that would not traditionally attend a museum.

The tourist benefit shows the British model in action. Seven of the ten most popular tourist attractions in this country are government-sponsored museums and galleries. 28% of visitors to the London theatre come from overseas.

Increasing numbers of British arts organisations and artists now tour internationally. The British Museum’s exhibition in Tehran provided an opportunity for the Foreign Secretary to visit at a sensitive time. The Arts Council’s international fellowship programme and its Artists Link Programme with the British Council in China have created some great international exchanges. The British Museum and the V&A have also announced an unprecedented programme of collaboration with China. Exhibitions from the British Museum have also been helping build civil society in Kenya and Ethiopia.

I think the results have been spectacular. When you are searching to show how things have changed you are usually seeking a policy that somehow embodies it.

Perhaps it is free entry to museums. But actually the crucial thing is not the policy but the fact that, as Nick Serota said to me recently, museums now just “feel” different. They have a different atmosphere.