Human beings thrive on arts and culture.This is evidenced not only by the huge swathes of visitors to museums and art galleries every day (Tate Modern counted nearly 4,000 visitors per day for the 2011 Gaugin show), but also by the abundance of organisations and activities related to the arts. If you attempt to type in to a search engine some vague term such as ‘arts uk’, you are immediately bombarded with millions of links to the seemingly infinite facets of the arts industry; theatre, dance, fine art, to name just the most obvious. So with all this huge wealth of resources in the arts surely our kids have more than they need in the way of access to them. Not so. A recent UNICEF report showed that, unsurprisingly, ‘in the UK inequality was…seen in access to outdoor, sporting and creative activities, with poorer children spending more sedentary time in front of screens whilst the more affluent had access to a wide range of sports and other pursuits’, and a new report by the Children’s Society shows that half a million children in Britain are unhappy with their lives.
Some of this must be a direct result of the elitist tradition of arts and culture for the upper classes which still abounds in the UK, perpetuated by rising costs of attendance and lowered wages, which completely prices out a whole chunk of society who couldn’t possibly afford to spend £60 on a ticket to the Opera. And what of your average west end show? You’re still looking at around £20-30 per ticket. More affordable for the so called ‘squeezed middle’ but still out of reach for the average family, except perhaps as an irregular treat. No wonder then that cultural activities such as these are seen as being ‘for posh people’ or ‘for university bods’. Having grown up in a working class town on a council estate, these are genuine descriptions I still hear regularly from both adults and children, which is depressing in its self-defeatism. Any one of the people on that estate could enjoy a gallery or theatre show just as much as a ‘uni bod’ if they could go with an open mind and the self confidence that comes with knowing these things are there for THEM. Cultural public ownership often doesn’t feel as if it includes the working classes.
With these entitlement attitudes being cyclically ingrained in kids at home and the government demonising the working class even more than usual, through a constant barrage of recession-approved negative association (welfare – they don’t deserve it, jobs – they can’t be bothered, health – they can pay for it themselves etc.) the middle and upper classes dominate the market almost entirely. This attitude has to be changed and to do that, prices need to drop to a reasonable level, as well as provision of far more free outreach workshops which take the theatre out of the west end and encourage parents and children to get involved. It is do-able if the funding were there. It’s investment in our children, and you’d think we’d jump at the idea. But this brings us squarely to the general British attitude towards children and childhood. To be blunt we just don’t respect it. This attitude leaches into the top echelons of many arts organisations, where children appear to be an afterthought. I’m not saying people don’t care, or that they don’t do their best; in fact I’m generalising in a big way, but I’m talking more about an overarching attitude and social manner. Our modern family zeitgeist, if you like. Capitalism and major corporative influence of a level never seen before, sees us now buying into the commercialisation of our own children, then feigning ironic surprise when they riot angrily and prioritise free clothes and shoes. The arts have been proven to have a beneficial effect on cognitive development, so why are we allowing this aspect of childhood experience to be pushed aside by a Gove-led education system concerned only with academic league tables and in churning out future business graduates from business-run Academies expected to ‘save the failing system’? We need to mobilise.
Action for Children’s Arts, a lobbying and campaigning arts charity for whom I volunteer, recently sent Freedom of Information requests to 20 major arts organisations in the UK, asking them what percentage of their annual budget was spent on producing work for children. The results were shocking. Children under 12 make up 15% of the population and yet rarely more than 1% of any organisation’s budget was spent on them alone. We should, in fact, be spending more than the technical 15% on them – like I say, investing in their and our futures. But as well as not being bestowed with extra, they are refused even their fair share. 1% funding for our children is a disgracefully poor representation of our public arts industry. ACA held a conference on 19th June to discuss how we can work together to change this. The conference was insightful and full of optimism for future policy reform, both within the government itself and individual organisations such as the BBC and the Arts Council, among others. We are continuing to discuss and gather ideas, via twitter and on the website, to inform a discussion group in the pipeline, whereby we aim for the outcome of a solid action plan and potential children’s arts charter.
Let us not forget how many organisations there are who do provide arts services for children and work tirelessly to keep our children’s imagination filled with fun and play and wondrous things: Unicorn Theatre, Polka Theatre, 5x5x5=creativity and Imaginate to name but a very very few. However, children as a whole section of society are underrepresented in the arts and are too often lumped into ‘families’ groups whereby an adult event is deemed suitable for children rather than being devised with children in mind.
The number of arts facilities provided just for children does in no way represent their percentage numbers in society and this fact alone does them a great injustice. It’s about time we started making children our priority, the future of this country. It’s about time we started taking responsibility for the fact that they feel angry and undervalued and not lazily blame the parents, but blame the culture. When art becomes truly art for all, for the whole of society, we will have achieved our goal. Until then, join us in fighting for an undeniable right for our children, the right to have access to the arts.
To join Action for Children’s Arts or to find out more about what we do and how we do it, see our website www.childrensarts.org.uk