A new dawn for British culture

Image of Peter Aspden

Ten years ago next month, a disused power station on the south bank of London’s river Thames started a new life as Tate Modern, home to the nation’s most important collection of modern and contemporary art. The building instantly captured the imagination of the public. On its opening day on May 13 2000, more than 5,000 visitors walked through its doors in the first hour. More than 40,000 had visited by the end of the day.

There was something of a party atmosphere in the cavernous galleries, which bore scant resemblance to the reverential air associated with the contemplation of challenging works of art. And a potent subtext lurked in the conversion of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s monumental power station, which had closed in 1981, into a temple of high art.

If the empty shell of a building that had skulked on the unfashionable side of the Thames symbolised the decline of Britain’s industrial might, its revivified form herald­ed the dawn of another, more subtle, mode of dominance. Art was going to matter, more clamorously, and to more people, than ever before. And culture – crowd-pleasing, city-regenerating, good-for-your-soul culture – was going to be the new manifestation of a softer form of power.

Visitor numbers to Tate Modern soon outstripped the most optimistic of forecasts. Its popularity contrasted sharply with the negative publicity surrounding the Millennium Dome, a project that had managed to make culture both vacuous and dull. Nearly 5m spectators visited Tate Modern in its first year, instantly establishing the gallery as the most popular space for modern and contemporary art in the world. Inside, art lovers were presented with a radical reorganisation of the gallery’s collection: the new hang dispensed with the traditional chronological ordering of works, displaying them instead by theme, often with jarring results. It was as if our senses were being deliberately scrambled, as a portent of the new millennium’s confusions to come.

But here is the surprise: we have taken the confusions in our stride. Within just 10 years, the old provocations have become the new orthodoxies. And as a result, British cultural life is more vivacious, more democratic and more popular than ever before. Visual art, even in its most audacious forms – a succession of weird projects on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth, for example – is a rock-solid crowd-puller. Our theatres and cinemas have attracted record audiences, even during the past 18 months of financial uncertainty. Great cultural institutions such as the British Museum and the Royal Shakespeare Company have reinvented themselves, finding fresh twists in the presentation of their zealously restored treasures.

There has been an extraordinary mass acceptance of what used to be regarded as avant-garde art forms. The lead vocalist of a rock band, Blur’s Damon Albarn, devised a Chinese circus-opera commissioned for an international festival of new work in Manchester: how abstruse is that? But not only was Monkey: Journey to the West critically acclaimed; it proved so popular that it transferred to the Royal Opera House, no less, performing to sell-out crowds.

Last year, a studiedly anonymous graffiti artist who called himself “Banksy” put on a show of his own work in his home city of Bristol: by the end of the show, visitors had generated an estimated 50,000 bookings in hotels. Here was guerrilla art as economic stimulus package: a quintessentially 21st-century phenomenon.

Baby-boomers who have complained of the lack of political engagement in today’s cultural scene – I have, on occasion, been among their number – were dumbstruck by the success of a little play called Enron, by the unknown 28-year-old Lucy Prebble, which made its debut at last year’s Chichester Festival, transferred to the Royal Court, and then to the West End’s Noel Coward Theatre, where it is still playing. Later this month it opens on Broadway.

Enron is a bold, challenging piece of stylised, physical theatre. Yet it was lapped up by an adoring mass audience, thirsty to comprehend the nature of the financial scandal that brought down one of the world’s leading energy companies. It was as if the crimes committed were so grotesque, and so bizarre, that mere exposition could not hope to do justice to their magnitude: we needed art to help us paint the compelling overview in more vivid colours.

When the collapse of Lehman Brothers signalled the beginning of another period of turbulence, Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, was straight on the phone to David Hare to persuade him to write a play about it. The result – last year’s The Power of Yes – prompted more sell-out crowds. Hytner explained what drove him to call Hare: “I said, ‘I don’t understand any of this, but it is something I feel I should understand and I bet most of our audience feels the same way – why don’t you try to explain it to them?’”

The list goes on: ambitious art and cultural programming that has found a large audience seeking to understand an increasingly complex world; and artists who want to take on the grand themes. Alex Poots, director of the Manchester International Festival, told me that artists today are ever more ambitious to “peer over the wall” and explore new directions. We were speaking at the first night of Prima Donna at Sadler’s Wells, a new opera by singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, another Manchester commission, which proved the very point he was making. On Thursday, English National Opera announced that two British filmmakers, Mike Figgis and Terry Gilliam, had been commissioned to direct their first operas for the company’s forthcoming season.

This is not the first time that the arts have made explicit overtures to a mass public, hoping to gain acceptance for cultural forms that have traditionally been regarded as elitist. After the second world war, culture was regarded as a peacetime priority, to help foster international understanding. The great European arts festivals, including Edinburgh, were founded to promote cultural co-operation.

The BBC established the Third Programme radio network in 1946 to bring the highest of high culture to the people. The philosopher and literary critic George Steiner recalls attending a cheese party in the early 1950s (everyone brought their weekly ration) to listen to the Venice premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, libretto by WH Auden: “One suddenly had the feeling that one was very rich, very elegant, very sophisticated,” he said in memory of the evening. “It blew open the world, at what was still, materially, a very constricted and dour time.”

But class-ridden, ration-blighted Britain was not quite ready to take Stravinsky and Auden in its stride. And when the 1960s arrived, the mission to bring high art to everyone was ambushed by a popular culture that was catchy, technologically accessible to all and, in its own way, breathtakingly daring. We don’t know if Steiner ever danced the twist to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” but the rest of the country did.

And so intensified the two-cultures dichotomy of the postwar world. Popular, or “low”, culture – television, film, pop music, fashion – became clever in promoting itself to a mass audience; “high”’ culture, battered and bruised, turned inwards into specialised, almost academic niches.

But if the age of Aquarius was also the age of dichotomy, then the past 10 years have been the time of convergence. A new generation of cultural leaders, many of them intellectually shaped during pop’s golden years, absorbed its lessons. By the time they came to power, the need to make culture accessible was a mantra already resounding in their heads. They knew that artistic excellence needed a popular touch.

Sir Nicholas Serota, born in 1946, director of the Tate gallery since 1988, convinced public and private backers to stump up £137m to create Tate Modern, with spectacular results. (He now seeks an extra £215m for a new building to cope with the overflow: so far, £76m has been raised.)

Hytner’s first play as director of the National Theatre in 2003 was Jerry Springer: The Opera. It might have been interpreted as an act of war on middle England, such was its gleefully blasphemous intent. It was a resounding critical and commercial success.

Neil MacGregor, born in 1946, taking over at the British Museum in 2002, was so shaken by the looting of Baghdad’s National Museum of Iraq the next year that he made it his mission to entice countries nominally hostile to Britain, such as Iran and China, to lend works to put on display in Bloomsbury. His current BBC Radio 4 seriesA History of the World in 100 Objects, supported by a sophisticated online project, is a masterclass in accessible erudition.

Tony Hall (born 1951), at the Royal Opera House since 2001, and Michael Boyd (born 1955), at the Royal Shakespeare Company since 2003, had the more prosaic task of overcoming financial problems: but they turned things round in a hurry, buoyed by Lottery money, imaginative fund-raising and adventurous artistic programming.

Private money, from company sponsorship or philanthropic impulse, loves to follow success. Private investment reached an all-time high of £687m in 2007-2008 (it has since, in the wake of the recession, fallen by 7 per cent).

There has been an equally notable rise in public funding: the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has raised its arts spending by 50 per cent in the past 10 years. The “30-30-30” model of mixed funding for culture in Britain, relying on equal amounts of public money, private money and revenue, has proved remarkably robust during the recent crisis. British arts centres have not suffered in the same way as US institutions that are dependent on private funds; and they can act more speedily and flexibly than their European counterparts, mired in the bureaucratic thickets of state funding.

So here, as we become enmeshed in an election campaign that promises to be the closest for years, is the story so far: we have, in the arts and culture, a sector of society that is rapidly growing; that is popular; that is supported by private investment; that acts as a stimulus on local economies; that is envied throughout the world; that is full of charismatic personalities; that makes us feel good and turns us into better people.

Yet so far as the election campaign’s coverage of culture goes, there is a deafening silence from the parties. This week’s manifestos did include some paragraphs on the arts: Labour has promised to provide cut-price theatre tickets, set up creative bursaries for young talent and to enact a raft of reviews on philanthropy and on heritage. The Conservatives have promised little more than to increase the share of Lottery funding to the arts, sport and heritage. The Liberal Democrats’ most notable contribution is its commitment to live music.

But there remains a reluctance among all politicians to bring culture into the mainstream political debate, despite the successes of the past decade. It seems embarrassing to talk about money for the arts when there are serious cutbacks to contemplate for health, social services, education. Perhaps fingers suffered indelible burns in the aftermath of the “Cool Britannia” fiasco that marked the Labour government’s previous attempt to ally itself with modern culture.

Yet culture – not industry, not health provision, certainly not financial services – has been Britain’s new jewel in the crown. Many aspects of British life have become tawd­rier over that period: the obsession with celebrity and reality television give unfortunate credibility to the “dumbing down” argument that is regularly put forward by pundits who are too old or too lazy to engage with new ways.

But the fact that more and more people are flocking to our greatest cultural institutions, with an appetite for tackling profound issues – who are we? how did we get here? what brings us together? – is surely the most compelling untold story of the new millennium. As the Elizabethans might have observed, Britannia is never so cool as when it takes the stage and asks itself the truly searching questions, to which the answers today seem ever more elusive.

Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer

Art in the new millennium

Art: Launch of Frieze Art Fair (2003)

In six years, Frieze has become the pre-eminent event in London’s cultural calendar; “Frieze week” in October now sees a plethora of satellite events and openings as art-world heavy-hitters fly in from all over the globe. There’s a festival atmosphere, with queues of eager spectators.

Funding: 10th anniversary of National Lottery (2004)

Highly significant for arts funding: by the end of its first decade the lottery had distributed huge amounts to arts and cultural projects – for example, £53m to Tate Modern, £54.4m to Cornwall’s Eden Project. The stream of money continues, although at lower levels than before.

Dance: Alistair Spalding becomes director of Sadler’s Wells (2004)

Spalding transforms the traditional theatre into the UK’s foremost venue for contemporary dance. The past decade has seen an explosion of street dance, in popular culture and at well-established venues. Sadler’s Wells stages regular festivals of hip-hop and street dance.

Theatre: Record-breaking revenues (2009)

Recession or not, West End theatres posted a year of record-breaking results: £500m in ticket revenues. Serious theatre as well as lucrative musicals contributed, fuelled by such recent hits as Enron, War Horse and Jerusalem – all originally the creations of the subsidised sector.

Pop: The largest live British pop event ever (2003)

Robbie Williams entertained 375,000 fans at Knebworth while the Millennium Dome (renamed the O2 Centre) finally found new life as a huge venue for concerts, essential with more and more bands back on the road: the reunion craze reached its height with Led Zeppelin’s return in 2007.

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