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You can’t force low-income people to go to an art gallery or the theatre if they don’t want to

So perhaps we would all be happier if we could just stop worrying about what class everyone belongs

28 February 2015

9:00 AM

28 February 2015

9:00 AM

I went last week to see the justly praised production of Wagner’s The Mastersingers at English National Opera, and I didn’t see a single black face there, nor even much dark hair (except in the case of Melvyn Bragg who, though now greying a bit, still seems to have Ronald Reagan’s gift for keeping white hairs at bay). This chimed with the finding of the Warwick Commission on the arts in Britain that much the greater part of live-music audiences, theatre-goers and gallery visitors is old, white and middle-class. Even though this wasn’t actually the reason for the Arts Council’s drastic decision to curtail ENO’s funding — this was because of its allegedly shambolic management — it easily might have been. For the Warwick Commission’s report has reawakened concerns that the publicly funded arts are, as it put it, ‘predominantly accessed by an unnecessarily narrow social, economic, ethnic and educated demographic that is not fully representative of the UK’s population’.

This is a longstanding worry. Already more than a decade ago, Britain’s most famous museums and art galleries were being warned that they could lose their government grants unless they managed to attract more visitors from ethnic minorities and low-income families. Specifically, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport demanded that 18 of them, including the National Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum, should aim for a rise of 8 per cent in the number of visitors from the poorest and least privileged sections of society. In addition, it required that seven million more children should visit them during the next few years. These objectives were agreed by the museums and galleries, which were warned that if they failed to respect them they could have their public funding cut off.

I don’t know what progress was made in this area, but judging from the Warwick Commission’s report, not very much. Certainly museum and gallery curators showed eagerness to comply at the time. The then director of the National Gallery, Charles Saumarez Smith, even announced a plan to get 30 Bengali-speaking mothers from Tower Hamlets to ‘make a number of sustained visits to the gallery, many travelling by Tube for the first time’. But this wouldn’t have made much difference, and it certainly wouldn’t have solved the problem of how you get people to look at paintings or go to the opera or theatre if they just don’t want to. The National Gallery even made itself a new entrance at street level, claiming that people found the front steps ‘intimidating’, but that hasn’t solved the problem either.

The cost and the overwhelmingly middle-class audiences may deter poor people from going to places like the Royal Opera House, but our museums and art galleries are mostly free. And if theatre, art collections and other temples of high culture are considered good things in themselves, and if they need state subsidies to survive, it seems to me that they should get them, provided anyone who wants to have access to them can do so, but without their subsidies being made conditional upon them attracting the right numbers of people from different socioeconomic groups, an unachievable aim.

A problem, however, is the extent to which such subsidies cut into the funds available for other cultural purposes such as arts education in schools, the decline in which was one of the greatest concerns of the Warwick Commission. Creativity, culture and the arts were being systematically removed from the education system, with dramatic falls in the number of pupils taking GCSEs in design, drama and other craft-related subjects, it said. Whatever the reasons for this, I wonder if it has anything to do with the other strange phenomenon of the moment — the fact that posh people predominate not only in audiences but on stage and screen as well.

And it’s not only in the cinema and theatre that public-school people such as Eddie Redmayne predominate, but in pop music as well. According to Noel Gallagher, formerly of the pop group Oasis, there is a shortage of working-class bands in an increasingly middle-class pop-music world. ‘The working classes have not got a voice any more,’ he says. ‘There doesn’t seem to be a noise coming from the council estates.’ Heaven knows why this should be, but I can’t see what anyone can do about it. We want much greater social equality than we have, but we would all be happier if we could only stop worrying about what class everyone belongs to.

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