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It is hard to imagine the extent of the chaos in which the UK arts world was operating in 1985. London had scarce reason to claim it was anything like the cultural capital of the world. It was preoccupied by more prosaic matters, like how to prevent its leading cultural institutions from sliding into bankruptcy.
There was, for starters, the small business of deciding who ran the Southbank Centre. The abolition of the Greater London Council conferred responsibility of the complex to the Arts Council. But the GLC was not giving up without a show of protest: it ordered its workers not to co-operate at any level in the transference of power.
“It is quite possible that when the GLC quits the South Bank it will walk out with the computer tapes containing the data on future bookings, payroll, running costs and marketing plans,” warned the first Weekend FT.
The clash was symptomatic of the climate of mistrust that existed between the government of Margaret Thatcher, deeply hostile to the idea of public subsidy, and arts institutions that had come to rely on government funding. Their anger was expressed colourfully at an awards ceremony by the then-director of the National Theatre, Sir Peter Hall. “Everything we’ve painstakingly built up in the last 30 years is being destroyed,” he uttered darkly.
And yet this was to signal a nadir in the relationship between government and the arts. As in so many aspects of public life, the idea of more accountable management began to take hold, even among cultural leaders hostile to the premises of Thatcherism.
By the end of the decade, even Mrs Thatcher herself felt comfortable enough to approve an “Arts for the People” campaign. In return, arts bodies were encouraged to seek private funding, and open themselves up to as wide a public as possible.
The results were occasionally comical — “An ace caff with quite a nice museum attached” ran a much-criticised slogan for the Victoria and Albert Museum — but the twin imperatives of pursuing corporate sponsorship and widening access were here to stay.
By the end of the millennium, Prime Minister Tony Blair was confident enough to acclaim the successes of “Cool Britannia”. He captured a mood within the country: culture was enlightening, entertaining, profitable. National Lottery funding, introduced by John Major’s government, was piling into capital projects, with culture a catalyst for urban regeneration. Tate Modern was a (literal) powerhouse that attracted millions of visitors to engage with contemporary art.
Today culture stands triumphant, one of the few arenas in which Britain unequivocally leads the world. Galleries are revivified, the arts enjoyed by more people than ever. You can’t move for cafés and restaurants on the South Bank. And the museums are, as the saying went, quite nice.
Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer
Susie Boyt’s column returns next week
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