A Farewell to Arts and a plea to Michael Gove

The chair of the English Arts Council for the last four years was removed by the Coalition. In her valedictory speech she sets out her case for the arts over the millenia and makes a moving appeal to the Secretary of State for Education.

Liz Forgan
19 February 2013

Liz Forgan was Chair of  Arts Council England from 2009 - 2012. She delivered her farewell lecture in the British Museum on the centrality of arts and culture, their funding and their inclusion (or in this case their exclusion) from education. This is an abbreviated version of what she said.



This is Bes, one of my favorite divinities. You will find him on the North East wall of the Egyptian Gallery upstairs. He is a cheery god of all sorts of things but combines great hair, a don’t mess with me attitude and responsibility for art and music. He dates back to about 300 BC and is only one of hundreds of objects in the museum which demonstrate that the arts are a need in humankind that comes immediately after food, shelter and protection from enemies.

Men and women across time and civilisations have used colour, texture, sound, shape, pattern and movement to express the things that mattered most. We may argue about where the arts stop and culture begins but for the purposes of today I need two words to avoid tedious repetition so I propose to use them interchangeably – in  Matthew Arnold’s sense of “the best which has been thought and said in the world, a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.”

I think he meant a much narrower definition than I have in mind. Mine would include Lou Reed as well as Maria Callas. The inventive energy of the best of popular culture as well as the classical canon.  Modern as well as ancient.  Global as well as domestic. But “the best which has been thought and said” will still do fine as a way of marking this deep need and delight that is in all of us.

I thought of ending my lecture here and just inviting you to walk round this great museum to discover for yourselves evidence of the unstoppable human compulsion to express all that is most profound and important by means of art.  But you can walk round this great museum any time. It is free to the scholarly and the curious which I hope encompasses most people in this audience.

But I’ve got a couple of other things to say.

We cherish and collect the work of artists from earliest times and our reverence for artists is reflected in the way in which artists themselves - dancers, musicians, actors, are immortalized in precious objects in every culture under the sun. The arts, the expression of our culture, are as deep a need in us as food, shelter, sex and security. We must have them. We must use them to express our human nature and our social existence. They are the way in which we communicate beyond the grunt and the whack. 

But artists have never acted alone. Clearly the great driving force of our culture is the desire to make for communication to others. To make in a way that is recognized and that has some sense of endurance.  And for this artists have always relied on something as necessary to them as their genius: patrons – to sustain them and to display their work.

Since David played his harp to Saul we have evidence of the role of patronage in the arts. 


It has come in many forms – individual and institutional reflecting the structure of the society.

Patrons have been priests, popes, pharaohs, caesars; merchant princes, dukes, kings, shahs, Maharajahs. They have been the powerful institutions of church and state. The wildly rich. The extravagantly exhibitionist. The Athens of its Golden Age gave us a model of civic patronage. So did the Florence of the Medici, the courts of Charles I, Catherine the Great and Queen Christina. The great industrial cities of the north of England took up that model and as wealth spread to the prosperous middle classes so did the pattern of individual and corporate patronage. 

And right in the middle of the dereliction of the second world war the idea of the modern state as champion of the arts took shape in Britain first through The Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts and then with the Arts Council.

It was symbolic of their understanding that while art is often the work of individual genius, culture is essentially a shared, common experience which is an expression of mutuality.  The state invests in culture because it sees it as an essential component of its collective identity and because it regards its artists as precious assets.  It does it because it is proud of the role our culture plays in Britain’s profile in the world and because it sees it as emblematic of nationhood.

Politicians in other European countries have found this easier to express than most British governments but if our leaders maintain a curiously ambivalent attitude to the public celebration of culture, at least they have consistently – and at some periods generously – helped to finance it. 

The relatively new ability to form cultural groups of shared affinity across the planet through virtual communities of ethnicity or specialized interest has linked people across boundaries of time and space in incredible ways.  Our universes of imagination, knowledge and capacity are enlarged and enriched beyond belief.  But digital technology can also have the effect of cutting the individual off from the physical reality of the next door – neighbours, fellow citizens, co-nationals.  We are not used to living like this and no one really knows what the long-term effects of it will be.  To me it cries out for the strengthening of the real connective tissue that is the art and the culture made in these islands and by our contemporaries across the world, which expresses us and our individual and collective experience in ways we can share and communicate.

The first Arts Council was seen as a modest and possibly even temporary supplement to private patronage and in some ways I thank goodness it was so. Not because I think the arts should be a private fiefdom but because that history has left us a blessedly plural funding formula.

I am personally convinced that our post-war scheme for supporting the arts, our combination of state support with private giving and commercial activity by arts organizations themselves is the most stable, healthy and balanced system in the world for nurturing and sharing our culture. Perish the state-controlled solutions of the European mainland.  Perish the overwhelming reliance on private patronage in America. They both carry a terrible price in cultural freedom and artistic independence which leads to a narrowing of the cultural landscape. Biodiversity is just as good for culture as it is for pond life.

This government, worried about the state of the public finances, has set its hand to upping the contribution of the private sector and the Arts Council has rolled up its sleeves to help. Arts organizations big and small have upped their game but so far levels of private giving to the arts remain stubbornly stuck at about 9% of the total. The only piece of the pie that has been growing is the contribution from the commercial activities of the arts organizations themselves – box office, catering, shops etc.

You know what’s coming next. No Arts Council Chair could leave her seat without saying it.

Critical to that achievement has been the maintenance of a proper, sustained, commitment by the state – our collective entity – to supporting the arts adequately, enthusiastically and at arms length from the artists. The contribution to the arts from general taxation is a minute 0.05% of the national budget, down from an exciting 0.07% a year ago and lower than when Margaret Thatcher came to power. Last year the government’s grant in aid was  £400million. Add another £213m of Lottery players’ money (please note NOT government support for the arts) and the total came to £613m. It got £26billion back in gross value added by the cultural and creative industries.

I leave out of this stage of the calculation the fact that culture is a deep necessity of human beings - because politicians aren’t interested in that - and I will deal in any currency that they find bankable. A modest investment in the arts pays back in hard currency and tradeable assets – a global reputation for excellence and places that are attractive to people to live, work and invest in. So don’t cut the arts budget. The saving is far too tiny to make any impact on the serious challenges in the national budget and the financial damage, to limit the point to this index even if it is not the most important, is deep and lasting. 

I don’t apologise for saying this publicly. We need to have the argument. It should never be thought disloyal for a Culture Secretary or an Arts Council Chair to beat the drum for funding for culture even if it annoys the Chancellor. 

Public support for the arts is part of a public realm which benefits us all infinitely more than any one of us contributes to it and for which private patronage, however, generous, cannot – and I would argue should not -  be a substitute.  Plural funding makes for creative freedom but the contribution of the state is an essential guarantee of that plurality. As someone memorably said, state funding is not a substitute for private funding but a condition of it.

I must say I never expected to have to make this argument again in my lifetime but I’m afraid the climate of the times does not let us take anything for granted.

On the whole politicians are bad at culture. Its values and time frames are different from theirs. Politicians and artists are different fish, who really shouldn’t share a frying pan, and having worked with both main parties for over 20 years that pretty much goes for everyone. All Culture Secretaries are on a hiding to nothing with the Chief Secretary at Spending Review. We can all think of two or three real exceptions but most of them haven’t had much interest in culture and wish they were somewhere else serious. It’s the job of Arts Council England chair to honour their democratic mandate, deliver their big priorities, understand their pressures, take as much of the strain of spending cuts hoo ha as possible – and then patrol the ramparts like a panther to protect the arms length principle and freedom of artists from the considerations of party politics.

That, by the way, is the only injunction I leave my successor. I don’t intend to offer him any counsel whatever as to future action. If the ideas were so great I should have done them myself and if he wants my advice he will always be welcome it.

Arms’ length is important because it recognizes that the arts function at a totally different level from day to day politics, however serious the issues which occupy our legislators.  The point about the arts is that while we may not all share a taste for Purcell or hip hop or Constable or Sarah Lucas we are all made - consciously or unconsciously – of little bits of the past and present culture of our nation that we have absorbed whether without knowing it or through earnest endeavour.  And that’s where we all reconnect with the artist of Ain Sakhri or the Lely Venus. Deep in our bones.

Danny Boyle’s genius was to touch all those wildly assorted points of mutual recognition in his Opening Ceremony. Yes! That’s Us!  said posh old grannies, the digi generation, republicans, nostalgics, immigrants, patriots, dancing nurses, deaf musicians, Mary Poppins, Elgar, Akhram Khan. The best, the blighted the longed-for, the ashamed-of. Told in a compelling narrative by means of the human talent for expression.  That’s culture.  Us seeing what it means to be Us. Clever Danny. Great artist.

Every generation of artists worth their salt determines to rip up the culture of yesterday and make all things new. Occasionally – Leonardo, Picasso, Schoenberg, Diaghilev, Warhol – they really do.  But even these shattering innovators cannot escape the DNA of their cultural heritage – lovingly burnished or turned inside out it doesn’t matter.  Mixed with cultures from elsewhere as people and trade flows around the word of course. But inherited – handed down – it must be if we are to retain a grip on our identity as individuals and as societies.

All art is our human heritage but that which has made the culture of these islands – as well as that made in these islands – has a special meaning for their inhabitants. From the fourteenth century onwards Britain has been part of wider European culture, then energized by America and increasingly enriched by a global culture all of which is ours by assimilation. It is part of us and we of it and we must learn and absorb it as we do the spoken language.  It’s the stuff from which we make our own art as well as our own identity. Every generation has the right to the keys to its past and to make it new in its own way.

Artists, patrons, teachers. Creators, supporters, handers-down. A living culture needs all three. We’ve talked about the first two and now it’s time for the third. 

The man I want to look in the eye tonight is the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. 

I am very interested in this man.  First because he has it in his hands to do almost the most important cultural job there is, even though the word culture doesn’t appear in his title.  Secondly because he gave the best speech I have ever heard from any politician – and that includes everyone from Maynard Keynes to Jack Lang – on the topic I want to end with:  the cultural education of the next generation.   

Powerful voices have spoken up about the positive effect of the arts and a cultural education on the young.

But even if the arts never actually managed to improve someone’s concentration, soothe troubled teenagers, help babies read faster or gave anyone a better sense of civic responsibility (and by the way they do all of the above) there is another reason.

Civilisations endure because their culture is renewing itself and because there is a thriving channel for handing down the knowledge, the techniques and the love – the canon, the skills and the inspiration - to the next generation.

And that is our job Mr. Gove. Yours and mine. As Chair of the Arts Council I have had the unique privilege of thinking about the way young people can discover their creativity and learn the culture that is their birthright. As chair of the National Youth Orchestra and Patron of the Schola Cantorum of Oxford I hope to go on doing so in future. But you Mr. Gove, you are the key player in this. You have the critical power in your hands to do this for every child in the land. You made a brilliant start by joining forces with Ed Vaizey to commission the Henley report on Cultural Education. Great report. Great initiative. Great speech to launch it. But where is the implementation?  

I do understand that you see education as more than the fulfillment of an individual child’s creativity (though that has always seemed to me a pretty good place to start). But even if we look at it purely in terms of delivering value to the future prosperity of the nation, education cannot simply be about beating Asia in the technology race. Just as there is a chronological history and a system of values to be handed down the generations so there is also a culture, a creative heritage which is the birthright of our children and the sign of our nationhood. 

And just as we let a whole generation lose the capacity to cook food so we are in danger of making the same break in the transmission of our cultural language.

But why this focus on Michael Gove? Why not Jeremy Hunt or Maria Miller? Because unlike most normal politicians Michael Gove gets it.  He really knows. He sees with perfect clarity the connection between the great heritage of the past and the great nation he seeks to build in the future. He perfectly understands the transforming power of the arts on young minds. Because it happened to him. And I focus on him because he is a rare politician with the determination and the brilliance to make a difference. He is not tinkering till he gets moved somewhere else. He is upending the entire school curriculum in a grand plan carefully thought-out and with a clear strategic purpose. A plan to nourish young minds with a new academic rigour but which as we speak makes no effort to do the same for their artistic development and leaves the cultural education of the next generation dangerously exposed.  

How can the man who spoke so brilliantly (and incidentally so absolutely from his heart that there was never a written text of his speech) leave all forms of culture out of the Ebacc? Leave everyone guessing about whether culture is to have any serious place in secondary education at all unless individual heads decided to give it one? 

Art, design and music are technically mandated in British state schools to 14 but they must be fitted in to the 35per cent of the timetable left over from the Ebacc and it is a rare school that manages to teach dance outside the PE class, that offers music teaching beyond the ukelele or decides to introduce any form of serious drama. 

The declaration of a core national curriculum sets up a hierarchy of value. The state mandates only the teaching of those things it truly prizes. That which is does not mandate it does not prize. It is no good saying schools are free to teach music and art if they want to and the pupils insist. If those things are not in the core of the state examination system a big red signal is hoisted saying with total clarity: This is of secondary importance. We don’t care.”

So not surprising that 15% of schools have dropped one or more arts subjects since the Ebacc changes were announced.

Gove is adamant that he cannot build a sixth pillar to the Ebacc. But he has other tools at his disposal. A proper published speech officially setting out his belief in the importance of cultural education. A clear insistence to teachers that culture has a serious place in his expectations of them. A modest investment in the continuing and renewing of the culture of Western civilization would be a huge boost to struggling heads and young people who are being starved of the arts in their teenage years.

At last we have an Education Secretary who really loves culture and whose own boyhood was enriched by contact with the arts. Michael Gove is in danger of committing the treason of the clerks. He is neglecting the pathways for handing on the culture, for ensuring that children grow up in the understanding of their origins, of the canon of work that has defined their roots as human and social beings, of the arts that can enrich their lives and speak to them as creative beings. I think he simultaneously risks robbing a generation of its their birthright and failing in the duty we all have to continue our culture, to sing the songs, tell the stories, continue the myths? If I am hard on him it is because he feels like such a tremendous opportunity which is just slipping away.

It’s not all calamity and I shouldn’t suggest that everything in the garden was lovely before Michael Gove came along.  Arts education in the state system has been unsatisfactory for ages. The music hubs which Gove set up with Ed Vaizey and the Arts Council will surely work well when they bed down though God knows they are struggling for resources. But in tough times Gove has found money to support the In Harmony schemes based on the Venezuelan El Sistema and the “I’s” haven’t yet been dotted on the cultural education policy – so there is still hope for movement. 

Meanwhile come and hear the extraordinary young musicians of the National Youth Orchestra play and you realize that classical music in some places is safe for ever.  It inspires those teenagers to play with such brilliance, such passion and such utter dedication that they could run empires let alone look after a cultural tradition someone had carelessly left lying around.

I have been to some sensational schools (proudly displaying the Arts Council’s ArtsMark which carries Mr. Gove’s own signature) where dance, poetry, music are at the heart of the curriculum and where children flourish and blossom as a result.  But they are only there because some genius head teacher has moved heaven and earth to make it so. It’s the luck of the draw. Sporadic.  Unpredictable.  Here today gone tomorrow. Underfunded. Undervalued in the places where they decide serious educational priorities. That’s the problem I implore Michael Gove to address.

When Victor Hugo staged Hernani there was a riot. Fist fights broke out before the bassoon solo finished at the first performance of Rite of Spring.  People cared about new, difficult art to the point of throwing chairs if they didn’t like it. We have become a lot more eclectic and tolerant in our aesthetic standards but I wonder if that doesn’t just mean we no longer know – or care – enough about our inherited culture to raise our blood pressure.

It is ironic that this dismantling should be happening just when digital technology offers undreamed of opportunity to artists in terms of the distribution and marketing of their work on a global scale. Nothing replaces the live experience – trebly true when it comes to young people and their first encounter with art – but the internet is a great opportunity for creative artists. 

Sound, colour, texture can be manipulated in dazzling new ways. The dynamic connection between artist and audience can be transformed.  Information on the web can be untrustworthy, unverifiable but culture can’t be faked. It is what it is. That is going to be a priceless commodity in years to come.

Meanwhile we risk not only the choking off of the risky and innovative as spending cuts bite but also – and possibly even worse to tell - depriving the next generation of the basic tools with which to recognize themselves and their culture. 

As I leave the Arts Council after four wonderful years I propose to pour a small libation at the feet of Bes and ask for his energetic intervention for the freedom and protection of artists, the encouragement of their patrons, the health of their audiences – and the return of Mr. Michael Gove to his true self.

With thanks to Arts Council England.

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