How do you solve a problem like Maria?

Maria Miller has apparently declared war against the arts world.  The past couple of weeks have seen key figures in the arts come out and challenge the new Culture Secretary, and after initially putting the barriers up she has now come out fighting against allegations that she – and, by extension, the government – are abandoning the arts in a time of need.  With her Twitter dialogue with Mark Shenton and an editorial in the Evening Standard in recent days – following on from Charlotte Higgins blog for the Guardian accusing her of stonewalling the press and the arts community regarding how engaged she is – it appears Miller has finally decided to make her presence felt, with Culture Minister Ed Vaizey also writing to The Stage to defend government policy.  Maria Miller’s recent language has been confrontational and defensive – but are the arts community being fair by personally targeting her, or does her lack of engagement justify the broadsides?

After Jeremy Hunt’s tenure as Culture Secretary, there was little evidence that his pleas to encourage greater philanthropy towards the arts had borne any real results; beyond large-scale cases such as the renaming of the Cottesloe Theatre at the National Theatre in recognition of Lloyd Dorfman’s £10m donation, there seem to be few examples of investment from private giving making up for the shortfall in public subsidy.  Whilst many industries have needed to wean themselves off reliance on public money in the wake of widespread cuts, there seemed to be very little leadership from government and public officials in helping the arts make this transition – and with so many people in different industries trying to compete for this private funding, such a sudden change in mentalities towards asking for this money needed guidance that was not forthcoming.  In an early statement during her tenure, Maria Miller stated that the arts needed to get better at “asking, not just receiving” – but such a statement simplifies the reality of doing so, and seems to misguidedly suggest that getting the money is as easy as just asking the right people.

As anyone who has ever tried to fundraise knows, it is not as simple as just looking through The Sunday Times’ Rich List, picking someone out, contacting them and waiting for the money to start rolling in; the right people need to be identified in order to make an appropriate approach, and considerations of possible conflicts with other recipients of support and what the money is used for mean that an initially large pool of potential donors can reduce significantly.  The planning and preparation to make such asks is incredibly time-consuming, particularly if the contacts to make the ask don’t already exist; there has been a visible increase in the size and number of specialised development departments within organisations since the announcement of cuts to RFOs/NPOs over the past few years, and many larger organisations have turned to those from the private sector to help lead these teams and to benefit from their existing contacts.  Even commercial theatre – often so reliant on ‘angel’ investors – has been finding things increasingly difficult; what is often forgotten in the push to promote private investment is that many people’s own finances have been directly affected by the economic downturn, and so we are seeing an inversely proportional relationship between the money available and the number of people asking for it.

With all this considered, it seems understandable that the arts community will feel like they are getting a rough deal; when looking for leadership from the government, they have found their lips as tight as their purse-strings.  What seems particularly galling to many is that the positivity generated from the Olympics extended itself to the arts, with Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony being largely well-received and providing a platform for the arts to make their case for continued support; now that the initial celebrations of Britain’s artistic diversity has died down, it seems we are back once again to the usual questions being asked of its ‘value’.  Statements regarding the amount of money the arts generates for the economy have often been disregarded in favour of merely talking about their cost – and arguments have fallen on deaf ears as Maria Miller continued to avoid tough questions and remain invisible up to this point her tenure.

I think it’s fair in some respects to defend Miller; she is a dual portfolio holder (also being Minister for Women and Equalities) whereas predecessors such as Jeremy Hunt and Andy Burnham only held one role.  Spreading a minister so thinly across two roles – and particularly two with such broad briefs – is undoubtedly a difficult task, particularly during a time where there are audible murmurs of discontent regarding issues related to both posts.  In many respects, effectively appointing a part-time minister is an indication of how important this current government consider the department.  However, Miller done herself no favours; whilst she may not have previously engaged much with the arts, she seems to be making no effort to do so now she is in post.  Previous Culture Secretaries have very visibly increased their engagement with the arts once taking on the post, but Miller has either not done so or is rather bizarrely trying to hide what she’s done – when interviewed by The Guardian’s Aida Edemariam, a question regarding what she had attended was interrupted by a special advisor stating the question had already been refused, before Miller eventually replied that she had attended The Promise and Benedict Andrews’ Three Sisters (although even then she said it was at the New Vic, rather than the Young Vic).  Having been in post since early September, it is disconcerting that she needs to be prompted to mention things she has seen – and positively terrifying that a question about it would be refused.

On Tuesday 20th November, a reception was held by Ed Vaizey and Frances Osborne (wife of Chancellor George Osborne) at 11 Downing Street, to ‘celebrate British theatre’; Vaizey spoke of recognising “the importance of what we call the subsidised theatre in supporting the West End”, a statement endorsed to some extent by SOLT President Mark Rubenstein and TMA President Rachel Tackley.  The following day, Newcastle City Council announced that plans were being considered to cut all funding to arts organisations in the city – Newcastle itself being a place praised by Vaizey in 2011 for working to support the arts in the face of widespread cuts.  For all the receptions and public statements being made about support for the arts, the fact of the matter is that actual support is not forthcoming from those overseeing policy – and all the while our community is expected to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.  For many, simply the chance to engage in a dialogue with the likes of Miller and Vaizey would make a huge difference; rather than stonewalling arts leaders and dealing in sound-bites, an indication that there is an intention to engage would at least be a step in the right direction towards a more self-sustaining industry.  No such engagement seems to be forthcoming, and for all the interviews and editorials actions speak louder than words – even those as barbed as Maria Miller’s.

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