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  • Photo: Tas Kyprianou

Learning through culture

Rosy Greenlees on the government’s first White Paper on the arts for 50 years

With questions over a referendum on Europe and the migration crisis dominating the mainstream media this year, it has perhaps been easy to miss that this government is rather keen on the arts. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said in his 2015 Autumn Statement, for instance, that ‘one of the best investments we can make as a nation is in our extraordinary arts, museums, heritage, media and sport’.

It’s a message he was eager to reinforce in a speech delivered at the first anniversary party for the Creative Industries Federation earlier this year. Meanwhile, Ed Vaizey, Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy, is preparing to publish the first White Paper – a policy document that sets out the government’s proposals for future legislation – on the arts since Jennie Lee’s over 50 years ago. It’s a hugely significant moment for organisations such as the Crafts Council.

At the time of going to press, details of the paper are sketchy, but it will be based around four themes: the role culture plays in place-making; how to build financial resilience in the nation’s cultural organisations and institutions; ensuring everyone can learn through culture; and promoting British excellence abroad.

Obviously at the Crafts Council we want to make sure that the importance of making in the nation’s cultural mix is properly considered. Measures we’ve suggested to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport include tax relief for makers; an incentive scheme that would bring expertise from the commercial creative industries into new and growing craft businesses; and stronger collaboration between UKTI, the British Council and the DCMS itself to help drive our craft exports. We’ve also floated the idea of refugee makers being able to access visas under the ‘exceptional talent’ sub-category of the UK’s points-based immigration system.

Ed Vaizey talking at the Crafts Council's Assemble conference, 2012. Photo: Tas Kyprianou

While much has changed since Lee published that original White Paper, one issue remains a hardy perennial. In 1965 she wrote: ‘A new social as well as artistic climate is essential. There is no easy or quick way of bringing this about, the more so as too many working people have been conditioned by their education and environment to consider the best in music, painting, sculpture and literature outside their reach.’

In the government’s Taking Part survey, which measures participation in, and attendance at, arts events, partaking in craft activities continues to be one of the most popular pursuits the British public engage in. ‘Frequent… crafts activities are significant predictors of greater happiness. Those who… do crafts frequently find life more worthwhile.’ It is good to know that, as Lee pointed out all those years ago, ‘the crafts also have an important contribution to make in the field of education and leisure pursuits as well as in their influence on good design… More and more people begin to appreciate that the exclusion of so many for so long from the best of our cultural heritage can become as damaging to the privileged minority as to the under-privileged majority.’ It’s a sentiment that brooks no argument from me.

Yet half a century on we are still fighting to persuade government of the importance of art and making in our schools. Perhaps more than anything else we hope Ed Vaizey’s paper will go some way in redressing this imbalance.

Craft’s identity crisis?

I couldn’t write this month’s column without responding to Daniela Walker’s article in the last issue of this magazine. Does craft have an identity crisis? No, would be my straightforward answer. Certainly the social, economic and cultural landscape it operates in has changed profoundly over the past decade. And yes, it is currently extremely fashionable as the participation rates in craft mentioned above bear witness to. Is that something to fear, as suggested in the piece? I don’t think so. In fact, I believe it’s something we should celebrate. Are there marketeers using ‘craft’ to imbue their clients’ products with an ill-gotten sense of authenticity? Almost certainly. But does that mean we should just abandon the word? Definitely not.

The fact of the matter is that those working around the fringes of craft may come and go. The current vogue for calling all things ‘craft’ will wane undoubtedly. But craft is a way of life and something well beyond glib fashion. Rather than worrying ourselves around linguistics, it seems to me that these are exciting times for craft. There’s a new sense of its possibilities and how its processes can extend beyond making beautiful objects and life meaningful, and move into areas such as technology, medicine and industry. By doing so, there is a developing comprehension that skill and a deep understanding of materials can help solve real problems. The truth of the matter is that we are surrounded by craft, and craft is here to stay.