The UK is the world’s third-largest market for art, outperforming Europe and only surpassed by the US and China. But this status is not enough to earn the attention of our politicians. Look at the manifestos of the major parties and you’ll find that culture is barely mentioned. This state of affairs, as Anne McElvoy recently observed, rings “as hollow as the fool’s eggshell in King Lear”.

Lucy Frazer, the culture secretary, assured me that “Arts Council England is now funding a record number of organisations in more places than ever before”. That’s great, but it doesn’t change the fact that many regional English institutions are in a perilous position.

The state of the arts outside London is particularly bleak. At the local level, where the bulk of arts funding is distributed, council coffers are running dry. In the education sector, the arts have fallen victim to the cult of STEM subjects, resulting in record low recruitment of arts teachers.

Arts and culture are often seen as an elitist preoccupation. And it’s no secret that the industry is overpopulated by white, middle-class professionals. Labour is attempting to restore the dominance of the “privileged few” by instituting private funding models that attract funding from multiple sources. This is a reheated version of what Grey Gowrie, Margaret Thatcher’s original Minister of State for the Arts, did in the 1980s.

Gowrie encouraged private sponsorship of the arts by offering incentives to companies, with the government matching their contributions. Corporate magnates volunteered for arts organisations, giving them an entrepreneurial spirit and funneling money to support their efforts. Ten years after its founding, Gowrie’s brainchild had raised some £74 million in new money for the arts.

The success of Gowrie’s plan has depended on clever perks for his supporters. If Labour has a concrete plan to attract private capital, it has kept it secret. Some of his plans have scared off the most generous donors to the arts.

Take, for example, Labour’s proposal to take a hard line on non-doms. This is not without merit, as it could potentially generate additional revenue that could fund those most in need. It could also drive away non-doms who provide vital lifelines to our arts. As one leading philanthropist told me, some of the biggest patrons are not only “rethinking whether to make new grants”, many are preparing to leave altogether. If they did, the government would gain nothing, but the arts would certainly lose a lot.

Even if it were to work, there are challenges to private philanthropy. Donors can steer programming, and some can even try to shape institutional collections to include artists whose work they already own or may soon acquire.

In the absence of a fully thought-out strategy, Labour’s turn to private donations could reinforce the closed elite system it claims to be trying to dismantle. And who will come to the aid of institutions when donors who have lavished on them find themselves in conflict with a future social norm?

Rather than launching ideas that are just slogans and have no substance, perhaps Labor (or whoever is in government next week) might consider committing to realistic proposals. Here’s one: expand the Percentage for Art Scheme (PAS) – a globally recognised funding scheme that incentivises developers to spend a proportion of their capital expenditure on the inclusion of public art in new construction, renovation or landscaping projects – across the country.

When the Arts Council tried the scheme in 1988, it not only increased public sector commissions but also private sector commissions. Today, there are a number of public art strategy firms working with developers worldwide to find ways to integrate artists’ visions into building projects.

Barking and Dagenham Council in London has taken a different approach, building affordable, light-filled homes specifically for artists, with studio space at reduced rent in return for residents committing to providing free creative programming for the neighbourhood. With the 1.5 million homes that Keir Starmer is pledging to build, a national PAS could help make the arts truly accessible to all, while creating new opportunities for artists.


Dr. Cleo Roberts-Komireddi is an art historian, broadcaster, and commentator. She hosts the Art Worlds podcast and is currently writing a book on Indian art, prehistoric to contemporary, for Yale University Press. Follow her on Instagram cleo__robertskomireddi; www.cleoroberts.com