We need a New Deal to save the arts. Here's how it should work

Between 1935 and 1943, FDR's Federal Art Project provided precious employment for thousands of artists across America. We need a similar programme today in the UK to ensure the creative industries—and the economy at large—can thrive

June 30, 2020
Postponed show notices on posters at The Nottingham Arts Theatre in Nottingham after NHS England announced that the coronavirus death toll had reached 137 in the UK.
Postponed show notices on posters at The Nottingham Arts Theatre in Nottingham after NHS England announced that the coronavirus death toll had reached 137 in the UK.

Are we all Rooseveltians now? Certainly it seems the cabinet are. On Saturday, in a speech at the Ditchley Institute, Michael Gove praised the president who led the US through the Great Depression and the Second World War.

Franklin D Roosevelt said Gove, managed to “save capitalism, restore faith in democracy, indeed extend its dominion, renovate the reputation of Government, set his country on a course of increasing prosperity and equality of opportunity for decades." The former president, he followed, "enabled America to emerge from a decade of peril with the system, and society, that the free citizens of the rest of the world most envied."

By Monday, Boris Johnson was telling the newly-launched Times Radio that now is the time for a "Rooseveltian approach to the economy."

His plan is certainly ambitious—in keeping with Conservative election pledges of 2019 and its “levelling up” agenda—and now given huge urgency by the fallout from Covid-19. The economic prognosis is grim: in the US, the nation hit hardest by the virus, some are forecasting 25 per cent unemployment next year. Here in the UK, the Bank of England has warned of a doubling in unemployment and a 14 per cent decline for the economy.

Culture will not be immune from this. One study commissioned by the Creative Industries Federation has suggested the creative industries could lose up to £74bn in 2020, with 400,000 jobs disappearing

As has been well documented, theatres across Britain have closed and may remain closed for a very long time. Galleries, cinemas and other venues have been given the green light to reopen, but will be working with vastly reduced capacities. Meanwhile freelance workers in the cultural industries, who make up a huge proportion of the sector, face a future where commissions could well just disappear.

Artists more than most have reason to look to Roosevelt’s New Deal as a template for survival and revival. Between 1935 and 1943, the Federal Art Project and the Federal Writers’ Project provided precious employment for thousands of artists across America, who painted public murals to adorn the corridors of public buildings, created state guides, and practically invented modern oral history with the Slave Narrative Collection, recording the stories of African-Americans who survived slavery.

The Federal Arts Project also created America’s first state-funded public arts centres, cementing the civil role of the arts across the country. Some of America’s greatest artists, including Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock, emerged from the Federal Art Project and onto the international stage. On a cultural, political and economic level, these projects worked.

As then, now. The British creative industries are massively important to the country, and will be more so in the decades to come. As more and more industries face a future of automation, by some estimates 87 per cent of creative industry jobs are automation resistant. In economic terms alone, but also for the sake of community cohesion, it makes sense to focus on the infrastructure of our arts industries just as much as it does to invest in transport or manufacturing.

Future Arts Centres, a network of over 100 cultural venues across the country, has been examining how the government could make exactly the kind of New Deal intervention for the arts sector that the government now seems to be advocating for the whole country.

We believe there are three simple steps that could be taken that would stimulate arts across the country, and not just in the West End; keep thousands of freelance artists in work, and create opportunities for young people across the country to gain skills that will last a lifetime.

The first step is to create a National Arts Project stimulus package that will enable arts centres and other institutions to provide employment for freelance artists to work with communities in schools, care homes, and other settings. This will be administered through Arts Council England and other national arts organisations, including arts centres—with their deep understanding of their communities—and artists themselves, who will be tasked with creating art for the world around them.

The second will be the expansion of funding for apprenticeship schemes to run in arts centres and other venues. Arts centres already provide training and routes to employment for young people all over the UK. An expansion of this work could see the training of thousands, not just in the creative arts, but also in vital gig economy skills that many in the arts already rely on, including budgeting, project planning, management and even preparing tax returns.

The third and final step will be to extend the current Theatre Tax Relief to a wider range of activities by expanding the definition of educational purpose in the current legislation. The theatre industry has proposed that tax relief on productions be increased from 20 per cent to 50 per cent, and we support that, with the proviso of a broader remit.

Broadening the scope to include a wider range of eligible activity would give directors of arts centres the confidence to get to work, employ artists to deliver activities in local communities, and reinvest tax claimed in future programmes.

Some arts centres, being adaptable spaces and vital community assets, have already announced their plans to open. Many more organisations will be able to do so if these proposals are adopted—and a lot sooner than theatres and concert halls.

These measures don’t require new legislation, merely political will. The chancellor could sign off these transformative plans tomorrow, and the New Deal for the Arts could be in place by the autumn. This is not an unlikely or impossible dream. Far from it. As FDR himself said when he outlined his Four Freedoms, this is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.