When York Art Gallery reopened in 2015, the introduction of an entry charge was not met positively. A staff member recalls one occasion when they were told that the price increase prevented a visitor and their children from exploring their heritage and another when a York resident’s card was thrown at them in anger. For some people, the cost is simply too much.
Sadly, up and down the country similar actions are limiting the availability of culture and the arts to the general public. Earlier this month, the V&A announced plans to privatise all staff contracts, signalling a move away from the public sphere that makes the arts more accessible. On the same day, it was announced that the Royal Photography Society’s collection, currently housed in Bradford, would be moved to the V&A. This move highlights the evident southern-centrism, and means that even if you have the money to enjoy culture, you might simply not live in the right place. Apparently the right place is London.
The root cause of these changes is the Conservative budget, which aims to cut spending by £37bn by 2020, which includes limiting the UK’s access to culture.
Culture is an essential part of modern society. It enhances people’s lives, educates the uninformed and creates a more diverse and engaged population. In the UK we are privileged enough to have access to a wide range of cultural events and spaces, including but not limited to theatres, galleries, music venues and museums. What use are these when they are locked behind barriers that are only opened by those with enough money to gain access?
The beauty of the arts is that you don’t have to have anything in order to appreciate them. Anyone can enjoy and engage with culture, regardless of education or any other social factor, and it brings together all sectors of society. Budget cuts stop this engagement and put in place a prerequisite for enjoyment of the arts: money.
What once could, and should, be enjoyed by all is slowly being converted into yet another elitist establishment, open only to those privileged enough to gain access. Budget cuts ultimately divide people, mainly into those who have and those who have not. For those who have not, culture used to be a form of enjoyment regardless of income or social status. Now that too is being taken away.
Lack of access to culture doesn’t just stop people appreciating it; it hinders people’s creative ambitions. With an education system that is increasingly focused on subjects that have more stable job prospects, such as those in the sciences, little emphasis is put on the possibility of creative pursuits. When coupled with depleted access to the arts, many young people who have immense creative potential will simply never be exposed to the possibilities of what they are capable of. Exposure to the arts inspires people, yet privatisation reduces the potential for this.
It is easy to dismiss culture and the arts as frivolous and something that should not be prioritised at a time when savings need to be made. However, culture genuinely improves people’s quality of life. It can be a welcome distraction from the struggles of the modern world, or it can engage with political issues and offer a way for just about anyone to express their emotions in their chosen form. Above all, the arts make people happy. Whether it’s seeing your favourite play performed live or being exposed to an artist who makes you feel things you didn’t know were possible, culture inspires, educates and enhances people’s lives. It is a crime if that is taken away from anyone.