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Blog: The day after the Olympics

By Nick Poole, CEO, Collections Trust

One of the interesting things about very significant events is that it can sometimes be very hard to think clearly about what lies on the other side of them. As I write, the Olympic Opening Ceremony is 86 days, 1 hour and 19 minutes away. It will, I am sure be a huge spectacle. Medals will be won and lost, nations celebrated and 24-hour media coverage live-streamed into every corner of our lives.

But what about the day after the closing ceremony - when the last visitor has made their way through the turnstiles, the detritus cleared and the merchandise removed from the shelves. Where does culture stand the day after the Olympics?

This is a question that will be occupying DCMS at the moment. The management of the delivery of the Olympics has given it a clear focus during a period when much of its sector has been significantly reduced. Once the Olympics are over, it is possible that the already-shrunk Department will see further reductions in staffing. With a severely restricted budget, it might struggle to secure influence across Whitehall and in the process to represent the interests of the sector effectively. 

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And so we may find ourselves faced with an interesting question. Is it better for the portfolio of 'culture' policy mandates (museums, libraries, archives) to be held within a single Department or to be distributed across the Treasury, Local Government and Business, Innovation and Skills?

When the responsibilities of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) were transferred to the Arts Council, one of its former Directors noted that this is the first time in 40 years that there has been no national strategic agency with a specific mandate for museums. This, he said, left the sector exposed to the risk of marginalisation, leaving it to fight for its share of a larger budget.

In practice, this is not how things have gone down - the Arts Council has made difficult but considered decisions about the deployment of a diminished funding pot, but it has protected museum funding for museums. But the Arts Council, too, will be looking ahead to the day after the Olympics and wondering exactly how it does more for the sector with the funding that remains to it. 

While it can be hard to see what lies beyond the Olympics, one political fact is likely to hold true - that there is no margin in mourning the loss of public subsidy to the Arts and Culture. Difficult though it may be, the strategically smart play is to gather our energy, fix our best smile on our faces and go forth into the world with a fresh, positive and optimistic product to offer. Whatever our personal politics, whatever the fortunes of our individual organisations, the only successful gambit will be to turn around and say 'well, that was tough, but look at the incredible things we can do for this country and its beleaguered economy'.

And in this process, I'd argue that we absolutely need a Department with a Ministerial portfolio that can help us make the case for Culture. Individually, our voices are thin and discordant. Neither museums, nor archives, nor libraries in their own right hold sufficient political pull to influence their own futures. Collectively with the visual and performing arts and the Creative Industries, however, our voices are stronger and more compelling. 

But DCMS is only as good as the ammunition they are given for the fight. And the reality is that we have been sending them into war with sticks and stones. When DCMS officials, and Culture Ministers go into Treasury to secure investment in museums, libraries and archives, they are going head-to-head with Transport, Health, Education and Foreign Policy. Where other Departments either *must* be funded or can demonstrate a real Return on Investment, we are left trying to bridge an evidential gap between ourselves and tourism. 

These are the real mechanics of a Spending Review, and in this process DCMS is our champion, not our enemy. So far, we have specialised in feudal battles - arguments about the disposition of funds from the Arts Council or HLF. But this risks looking politically naive. The real battle is with the people who decide what funds are available for the Arts Council and HLF to distribute. The proper target of our advocacy is not DCMS, but the Treasury, the Cabinet Office and the Number10 Policy Unit.

So if we want the day after the Olympics to feel like a fresh start for the Arts & Culture, then we need to come together and work out what product we can sell to the real locus of influence. And that product  needs to key into the real preoccupations of this Government, which would mean empowering local communities, supporting economic growth, promoting inward investment from overseas, amplifying the impact of education and helping UK business become globally competitive. 

That's it. That's the radical insight. Exactly the same argument we've been making for years. But the difference is that it is not enough to say it, we have to mean it. And when we make the case, we have to make the case as an industry, not as 10,000 individual organisations. The only way we will claim ownership of the national narrative about culture-sector funding and use it to describe a better future is if every voice, from every corner of the industry, from every sector comes together with a singularity of purpose. And when we are all speaking the same message, we need to provide DCMS with the solid evidence they need to drive it home. They need facts, evidence, anecdotes, statistics. They need champions, Lords, media figures, luvvies and Britpop-era artists to be shouting the same message. All so that when they go into Treasury, they cannot be dismissed.

So, the day after the Olympics, DCMS needs our help. It needs all of us to decide that our fortunes lie in unity not competition. It needs us to behave with dignity and optimism, and yes, I do know that's an awful lot to ask. We need to fill in the questionnaires, send the emails, lobby the MP's, put on the world-leading exhibitions, so that when the time comes to make the decision about funding, we look like a sparkling opportunity to invest in UK Plc. That, or we can argue amongst ourselves while the mandate for cultural policy is spread quietly across Whitehall.

 

 

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