Arts New Deal needs a sharper focus

March 25, 2009 by
Filed under: Politics 

In his stark warning against boosting the fiscal deficit Mervyn King gave the Government some leeway by agreeing the need for ‘targeted and selected’ spending.

By a strange coincidence I was making a similar point in 11 Downing Street. I would love to say this was because all has been forgiven, the big tent has had its final extension, and I am now once again a trusted advisor, but it wouldn’t quite be true. I was a late addition to a long list of arts and cultural industry luminaries invited to the launch of something called ‘The New Deal of the Mind’.

This is an initiative that has sprung up in response to a New Statesman piece by Martin Bright published in January. In it, Bright argues for the UK to emulate the major investment of public funding in arts that took place through the Roosevelt New Deal. He also called on policy makers to learn from the successes of the early 90s Enterprise Allowance Scheme, a pot of money that enabled many small scale cultural producers to set up their first business.

The event organisers, including its warm and hospitable host Maggie Darling, did amazingly to gather such a cast list quickly; Jude Kelly, Mark Thompson, David Putnam, Tony Hall, Trevor Phillips, John Tusa to name but six, plus cabinet ministers Burnham and Purnell and even shadow arts spokesperson Ed Vaizey . But there were three problems:

  1. In their enthusiasm the champions of the New Deal for the Mind had already created a brand including squiggly line logo, headed notepaper and lapel stickers. As the conversation went on and the ND4M concept got cloudier this created the sense that we were dealing with a mission in search of a cause.
  2. It was the American speakers, and particular New Deal expert, Professor Alan Brinkley, who opened up the big conceptual fault line. The Professor was clear that most of the art funded by the New Deal was pretty dreadful and much of it of a ‘agit-prop’ anti-capitalist bent. Some of the millions of dollars invested by the Works Progress Administration went into products of enduring value, for example the recording of oral histories and folk music and the production of vivid accounts of city life, but this was overwhelmingly a job creation scheme not an attempt to foster a new renaissance.
  3. The fault line then grew as the arts leaders (a community never exactly overburdened by its commitment to policy rigour) veered between a general plea for more arts funding, accounts of the specific challenges facing sectors such as the music industry or architecture (problems that will not be solved by standard job creation programmes), and some more specific ideas for an arts New Deal.

Which is why I made my Mervyn-esque intervention.  I argued that the ND4M case must be about funding programmes based on a clear and costed rationale, quick and non bureaucratic to implement, targeted at those who most need help, creating something of wider relevance and value, and with the possibility that at least some subsidised activities might one day become self sufficient. And I offered one example (recognisable to the regular reader of this blog).

Why not create a national scheme to give newly redundant regional journalists, and those emerging from journalism course with no chance of a job, start-up funds to create strong community web-sites.

These sites could be of real values to local people trying to cope with the recession, generating new business and community self help opportunities. With a small national body to support these fledgling sites and foster innovation and best practice (as is being developed by William Perrin working with UK Online Centres and Channel 4), we could see hundreds of powerful local networks in months.

Assuming the site developers work from home and can use shared resources developed by the national body, a year’s set-up cost (enough time to see whether the site can succeed), including basic pay for the person running the site, would cost about £30k per site. For those who have access to premises there could also be a two way apprenticeship element where the former journalists take on school leavers, who, while they are learning writing and reporting skills may be able to teach their mentors a thing or two about social networking twittering etc.

So, a pot of about £30 million could fund a thousand community web-sites adding real social value, employing at least a thousand workers with valuable skills and offering some great opportunities for graduates and school leavers. What’s more, this spending can be fast and direct. It need take only weeks between committing the resources and the sites starting to make an impact. And this contributes to various other Government objectives around community cohesion and resilience.

I am sure there are flaws with my idea but if ND4M is to turn enthusiasm into impact and credibility it needs to spend less time on its logo and networking and more on developing detailed and costed proposals



  • Barry Marshall

    But why put new money in? I think you’ll find that every Local Authority has their own bespoke website. I would guess that the number of hits each receives nowhere justifies the expense of them.

    Is anyone thinking of cutting big costs by letting Google run the simple basic indexing of local authority information that is required? Then your good idea would be seen to be aligned with prudent ratepayer spend – and the essential and immediate need in the public sector for “zero-based budgetting”.

  • Mike Amos-Simpson

    @Barry – anybody can already do that and if you want it in a nicely presented way Dave Briggs has already done it here:

    Setting up a local media service under the control of the local authority doesn’t seem likely to be that popular given that people would presumably prefer some neutrality?

    I like the idea of looking to arts within ‘new media’ but I think there are much more creative ways of approaching it than setting up local news sites. Why not look to develop more opportunities to support children and young people to use and develop creative work online through exploration of local issues and alongside this support professionals to gain the skills they’ll need to educate and support young people to be able to continually adapt to new technologies through the arts? (which is surely the one skill set we can be sure they’ll need). I think a thousand of those kinds of projects would have much better value in the long term (and probably much more interest)

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  • Barry Marshall


    The public finances are at breaking point.

    By all means “Retarget” on cost effective Dave Briggs and “Unselect” the expensive squiggly line logo, headed notepaper and lapel stickers of bespoke local authority websites. It might not save billions, but it will show intent for the big ones.

    Let’s debate a new Arts New Deal but presently we can only afford a new “essential to have” if the failed bygone “nice to haves” are terminated.

  • Mike Amos-Simpson

    Barry I couldn’t disagree with that. I don’t know much about how local authorities fund their web sites but I know theres a lot of energy going into challenging them to do it better and more effectively, and while google is a great option for finding what you want, you still need people to put that stuff up there in the first place. I would say too that local authority sites have a much wider purpose than might be at first thought. When looking to relocate somewhere ‘down south’ a couple of years ago I spent a lot of time looking at council websites to research if we’d like to live there, if it was convenient for my business etc. and while my own relocation won’t have benefited the local economy a great deal I’m sure there are others who do similar that do.

    I don’t know anything of the New Deal of the Mind besides Matthews post and its own rather sparse website (complete with couldn’t be bothered to think about it properly but I’ll pretend its a profound statement squiggle logo), but my suggestion was on the assumption that if the money is going to be spent anyway I’d argue the demand for old style local news web sites is rapidly diminishing and money would be better spent on finding ways to support the development of new approaches to using the web rather than old views of how the web can be used.

    If however the money hasn’t already been agreed then yes I’d agree with you there may well be better uses for it, and certainly if a single penny gets spent on some of the dribble I saw at a so called art exhibition last weekend I’d be very annoyed (and the squiggle logo suggests to me that dribble is the sort of ‘art’ they may well approve)

    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks Mike and Barry for this exchange

      My idea wasn’t strictly for news web sites but for sites which provide very local news alongside networks, platforms for new initiative, agit-prop etc (for example, in other words sites that build community capacity. Sites like this could link really effectively to local schools and youth clubs and get young people to develop their own parts of the site. There is some good stuff out there but it is patchy and not supported by a strong network through which people can learn and develop widgets and insights. Given how cheap it is to run a site like this little bits of local sponsorship (from shops, pubs, local public service) can be enough to make the thing viable. Imagine a country where you took it for granted that there would be a good micro site in every neighbourhood; imagine how much quicker it would be to get engaged when you moved in or how much quicker the community could mobilise when ti had an opportunity or threat

  • william perrin

    matthew – thanks for your support on this – yes, it would be simple to set up larghe nuimbers of these sites with that sort of cash. such ultra local sites seem to lower the cost of civic engagement for people, resulting in increased levels of engagement (basic microeconomics). the debate by the Guardian columnists in this area recently has been disappointing – Roy Greenslade gets it, Polly Toynbee and Ian Jack seem overly attached to a newspaper model that is failing.

    Elsewhere on the arts, I have just posted the below on Simon Jenkins peice calling for museum store rooms/archives to be made publicly available.

    >>simon jenkins should draw a connection between this piece and his recent article on the empty buildings of modern boom time construction.

    Across recession britain, huge warehouses lie empty in often untrendy towns. they have good security, often climate control excellent car parking and road links. This makes them a rare commodity in britains building stock. why not lease one or two for the nation and use them with simple racking to display exhibits from storerooms on a simple, unpretentious basis.

    This would of course require a shift in the curatorial art – displying exhibits in an austerity fashion, or on an 80-20 basis. That is that 80 percent of the benefit is derived from 20% of the effort – don’t refine it too much, just get it out of the stores and into public display. More Zavvi stock display less zoo-ology.

    So why not increase the cultural lives of fine towns that are the Dubai of warehousing Northampton, Kettering, Corby by bringing Britain’s greatest collections to their now quiet warehousing estates. The colossal MFI warehouse on Liliput Road in Northampton would be a good place to start – from MFI to mesopotania.


    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks William. What a great idea!

  • James Horn

    Staying on the arts theme, perhaps there is something in investing in the more profitable areas of the arts in these cash-strapped times?

    I work in the videogames industry that is supposedly worth £1bn to GNP over the last few years and employs 28,000 professionals. Yet all the talk about the industry by the government is about crackdowns and restriction. How about using this infrastructure to spin off into job creation in new industry sectors? I believe that the potential for interactive educational tools is vast and could be fueled by the experience of an industry that is world class (UK development is currently fourth largest in the world after the US, Japan and recently Canada).

    Through tax breaks and additional targeted funding to existing developers plus limited new start ups, important new revenue streams could be created. Alongside this, the process would train a large number of people in valuable technological skills that can only benefit future growth in the UK IT sector as a whole.

    • matthewtaylor

      Hi James. It is now allowed again to talk in Government about backing winners. Peter Mandelson in his speech here talked about industrial activism. I think tax breaks for the video games industry could be linked with giving that industry incentives to use the technology for social purposes. Games technology is very powerful and by definition highly engaging. Wouldn’t it be great (financially and in terms of our identity) if the UK could lead the world is understanding how this technology can help learning, public health, community engagement, conflict resolution etc etc

  • Mike Amos-Simpson

    @James – definitely. Investing in things like gaming and anything exploring creative ways of using new technologies seems to make a lot of sense to me – looking to develop new stuff rather than using current stuff to replicate old stuff!

  • Liz Ixer

    I am a member of a very fast growing and very active community website in the neighbourhood of Harringay, Harringay online, which is already achieving much of what is being discussed here.

    Built on ning just under 2 years ago, it provides information/hyperlocal news including first hand reporting (some of which is picked up by local newspapers) and invites debate on that info. It is contributing greatly to building social capital in the area and helping people to find a voice in local democracy and has already campaigned successfully on local issues.

    Moreover, because it is a social network model, it enables people to connect on a personal level, share photos and video and their thoughts and experiences via personal blogs as well as organise themselves to undertake cultural and fun events in the community. Its ‘feel’ is warm, personal and lively.

    Also, as it is run by volunteers from the community, the website is trusted by the community who see it as ‘their website’ and are proud of it . They also express great pride in their ‘off line’ neighbourhood; its shops and public spaces, history and diverse population contributing to a very real sense of community.

    It is a great model for the kind of project you are advocating.

    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks Liz. This is exactly what I’m talking about. I almost signed up for the Lindy Hop Dancing but then I remembered I am a South Londoner! Are you in contact with William P (as if I need ask). We are doing a project on digital inclusion and social networks so we must get you involved.

  • Joan Keating

    Further to William Perrin’s point above, for a parable about how the display of art can lead to community regeneration, grab a copy of Frank Cottrell Boyce’s book for chldren ‘Framed’. In it works of art from the National Gallery are being stored in a Welsh slate mine because of the threat of floods (Cottrell Boyce has taken his cue from real life WWII events). Pressure is exerted so that individual works of art are put on display one at a time. Displaying Renoir’s umbrella painting causes the residents of Manod to start using brightly coloured umbrellas. Viewiing Monet’s Bathers inspires a community restoration of a boating lake. The book was Whitbread listed, my kids love it, but it really can be read by adults.

    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks Joan. Book sounds great. I will look out for it as a present (and then i’ll read it myself before giving it!)

  • RickWaghorn


    Very interesting thoughts on a hyper-loal news network.

    Only I think your numbers are way off.

    I think you could do that for, ooh, £100,000. Not £30 mill.

    The trick is to arm your network of ‘village/postcode correspondents’ with a starter pack that includes the ability to get paid – once via hyper-local advertising sourced through a DIY self-service ad system and, twice, via highly-targetted HM Govt and regional Govt advertising that’s ‘dropped down’ from above – in effect, a ‘subsidy’ via relevant digital advertising…

    It’s about handing out tool kits; replacing print press and paper boy with lap-top and mobile… work from your kitchen table; work the playground Mums beat; use the latest digital tools – eg AudioBoo, Addiply – to lighten the work load… and let’s just set our sights no higher than earning someone a part-time living to watch over and ‘curate’ the news for one postcode.

    Cos then if you can do one postcode, with a bit of joined up Shirky-esque thinking, you can do every postcode. Think networks, not silos…

    So for £100,000 you get a tool kit, a ‘starter pack’ to hand out to whoever fancies a go – much in the same mould of a beer or wine making ‘kit’ from Boots; go home and brew your own news.

    And let the community be the judge as to whether it works.

    But if we get a revenue model in place, then you can earn as you go…

    And it’s all there; waiting to be done; I’ve even got a part-time post-code reporter waiting to go in one postcode in Norwich; and we know what we’d put in our first ‘tool kit’ – we even know how we’d deliver it – replace paper boy with wifi cloud…

    But you try explaining any of this to your local Barclays Business manager.

    We’re good to go; all we need to find is an open minded thinker with a small pot of funding to hand. One that’s nearer £100,000 than £30 mill…

    Will also, of course, save HM Govt £s and £s in potential bail-out costs as Trinity, Northcliffe, etc all come a-calling…

    All the best, etc


  • Nick

    Publicly funded local news portals like Local Mouth are dreadful and a waste of money. There are lots of good hyper-local news services out there and I don’t believe there’s any investment necessary in templates or training (I don’t believe a one-size fits-al approach works well with hyper-local) – there are plenty of journalists and amateurs capable of running excellent sites using existing free templates, such as blogger or wordpress. The challenge is to create an advertising platform that will make local sites pay – and perhaps some support for local marketing / awareness raising.

    But I don’t believe that the public sector funding is appropriate, a far better solution would be for a commercial company to develop a network of local franchises using existing bloggers. Something like the Rivals network for football clubs.

    • matthewtaylor

      Interesting Nick. I guess the question is; if it can work commercially why hasn’t it happened? Be interested to know William Perrin’s view

  • David Barrie

    a major push on ways in which people on the ground can share knowledge sounds like a genuine priority, as opposed to a generation of Diego Rivera’s and commissions like Rothko’s for The Four Seasons, New York. I think the vanity and needi-ness of the cultural sector has managed to shoot itself in the foot over the last thirty years, falling totally hostage to fashion and finance. Let them be bailed out by their community of existing sponsors and let us remain focussed on what’s important – like skilling up in green technology and energy management, re-making institutions in ways that ensure they are led by product and service innovation, finding new ways and new means to take and manage risk and promoting dispersed ownership and use of media to share knowledge. Not a new generation of street artists. Or, God help us, murals by the unemployed of Teesside, mentored by Jake and Dinos Chapman and the subject of a three-part BBC TV series presented by the Creative Director of BBC2. This is an Old Deal of a failed market. We need a New Deal for New Markets – and, er, forgive the rant!

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