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Queen Mary experts warn Levelling Up agenda risks levelling down London arts and culture

Queen Mary University of London has appointed 12 Cultural Advocacy Fellows to help make the case for Government support of the arts and cultural heritage sectors, as new research highlights their importance to public life in the capital, following Friday's devastating funding cuts for some of the city's beloved institutions.

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The Fellows’ appointment comes at a crucial time for the sector, when the cost of living crisis means individual creatives and organisations are hit hard by rising overheads and reluctant audiences – even prestigious institutions like the English National Opera, which recently announced relocation plans away from London due to funding cuts.

Most Londoners personally value arts and culture (55%) and feel that public service media is important (66%), according to the latest research from Queen Mary’s Mile End Institute*, where the new Fellows will spend the next three years working with academics and political decision-makers to address public policy issues as part of the University’s arts and culture strategy.

Of more than 1200 people surveyed, 4 in 10 (39%) raised concerns that Government ‘Levelling Up’ plans to move arts and culture funding from London elsewhere in the UK will negatively affect their community. 2 in 10 (21%) see this as the biggest issue facing arts and culture in the capital – a figure which may have risen since the weekend's withdrawal of national funding for some local organisations.

As well as this ongoing issue of Government austerity, Covid-19 had enormous impact on London’s vibrant arts and culture scene. Some (14%) said they value arts and culture even more now, since working from home and restrictions on other hobbies created extra time to engage in them, but a few (7%) say the pandemic has made these things feel less significant. 

When asked what people get from arts and culture, the main message was that it’s not only a fun source of entertainment but also important for experiencing and preserving heritage, with 23% citing these benefits. The rise of ‘social prescribing’ was also reflected in the poll, with 19% saying arts and culture improves both individual and community health. Despite being powerful tools for personal creative expression, with significant economic impact on wider society, very few (4-5%) felt these were the main benefits of arts and culture.

Prof Patrick Diamond, director of Queen Mary’s Mile End Institute - which funded the new research and will be home to the new Fellows until 2025 - explained: “Our research shows just how much Londoners care about the arts and our city’s vibrant culture. This underlines the warning message that our new Cultural Advocacy Fellows will keep relaying to the Government: it is a false economy to avoid arts investment or ignore cultural policy, because this matters to a lot of voters.”

Queen Mary’s Cultural Advocacy Fellows join the University from diverse and influential institutions, ranging from national sector bodies like Arts Council England to local industry experts in the Greater London Authority (GLA), with trade unions and Government units working together in a unique coalition to champion the arts and culture sector.

The newly appointed Fellows are: Nicola Solomon from the Society of Authors; Deborah Annetts from the Independent Society of Musicians; Naomi Pohl from the Musician’s Union; Paul Fleming from the union Actor’s Equity; Philippa Childs from the technician’s union BECTU; Kim Evans an arts consultant; Ruksana Begum from Tower Hamlets Council’s arts development team; Rachel Roe and Raja Moussaoui from the GLA’s Culture at Risk team; Justin Hunt and Richard Ings from Arts Council England.

Dr Philippa Lloyd, Queen Mary’s vice-principal for policy and strategic partnerships, commented: “Universities have the power to build some of the evidence needed to address inequalities, but we also have to share this information, so that collectively we can make the case for change; our new Fellows will be key to helping us translate academic work into real world impact. Queen Mary has long played a central role in advocating for London’s cultural landscape, extending back to our origins as the People’s Palace in 1887, and now our Fellows will help us to champion the sector not just locally but nationally and even internationally.”

Arts and cultural professionals recently joined the Fellows for their inaugural event on Thursday 27 October, a symposium exploring potential solutions to rising inequalities – both in terms of how the sector can address these issues, such as social prescribing work or creative projects that challenge injustice, but also problems within the sector like working conditions and funding cuts.

The event closed with a talk from Kay Adekunle Rufai, national artist in residence for West Midlands Police and former Queen Mary student, who explained some of the work he’s done using art to record and reduce inequalities; for example, the recent Barbican exhibition that stemmed from his Wellcome Trust funded research to develop a creative mental wellbeing toolkit for young black boys, supporting their self-worth and shifting the attitudes in society that feed inequalities.

Reflecting on the event, director of Queen Mary’s arts and culture team Dr Aoife Monks concluded: “Against a backdrop of rising inequality nationwide, and the specific inequalities in the sector itself, we felt it was vital to look at how creative new approaches can help tackle these complex issues. The work that Kay shared is a great example of how arts and culture can offer unexpected solutions to deep-rooted problems, and our new Fellows will help us to explore many more avenues for this kind of innovation and intervention.”

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