The impact of cuts on creativity

Can creativity flourish at a time when government funding for arts and humanities is being cut? That was the question under discussion at ‘Cuts in culture: the impact on creativity’, an event in London on 11 May. The focus was principally on funding for arts organisations, but the discussion also considered how different academic disciplines are valued, and how they can work together.

The starting-point for the day’s discussions was an opening address by the outgoing Chancellor of the University of the Arts London, Lord (Dennis) Stevenson, who suggested that history shows no direct relationship between money and creativity. In his view, the planned cuts of 15 per cent over three years to arts organisations are not in themselves disastrous – but a ‘continuing downward slide’ would present a problem. Touching on the future of university arts and humanities departments, Lord Stevenson acknowledged the risk to ‘civilisation, not just creativity’ if these subjects were lost – but he believes that public debate has ‘misrepresented’ the true picture.

In contrast, the Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Ivan Lewis MP, feared that higher education funding is clearly weighted in favour of science and technology, and that arts and humanities courses at ‘non-elite institutions’ will be forced to close – with the result that students from low-income backgrounds would miss out. He rejected the ‘false choice’ between intrinsic value and instrumentalism when assessing the role and value of specific subjects, and between excellence and access. And he was emphatic that culture should be an entitlement of citizenship, not the privilege of a narrow social group.

Culture and creativity as a right was picked up by Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of London’s Southbank Centre. She made the point that every individual needs a sense of their own creativity, that creativity is the bedrock of human progress – but that it has many forms and does not belong to the arts, or to science, or even to ‘education’ as a whole. Observing that changes to arts and higher education funding have happened very quickly, Jude Kelly suggested that rather than simply blaming the Government, organisations and individual disciplines should consider whether they have been living too much in silos. Human life doesn’t separate arts and humanities from science and technology, and proper conversations are the only way to overcome entrenched divisions between sectors. In Jude Kelly’s view, arts and education organisations are facing a challenging time not because they are losing money, but because they have allowed themselves to be divided.

Times might be difficult, but we are not about to enter an era of culture wars in the UK. That was the view of Sir Peter Scott, from London’s Institute of Education, who explored the value of arts and humanities to society and the economy. He believes a new vocabulary is needed here, where subjects are valued neither for their intrinsic worth nor for their instrumental role. Instrumental thinking has become dominant during the regime of research assessment exercises that have dominated UK universities since the mid-1980s – a regime that is well suited to the physical sciences but much harder for arts, humanities, social sciences and creative subjects, which are essentially argumentative.

Defining what is meant by ‘excellence through research’ was the task of Alan Wilson, Chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, who focused on impact – but acknowledged that this is unquestionably broader and more complex than economic impact. He called for a greater focus on interdisciplinarity, and a shift away from knowledge transfer (from research to the wider world) and towards knowledge exchange.

Transcripts of presentations will be available shortly from the organisers.

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