Blair's 'Golden Age' of British Art A Prime Minister Cool to Culture Will Leave Behind a Hot Arts Scene

Could the arts be Tony Blair’s brightest legacy as he steps down as prime minister on Wednesday?
Von Alan Riding

Over the past 10 years, while cultural innovation has seemingly been sparse in traditional creative breeding grounds like the United States and France, the arts have been flourishing in Britain. Never before have museums been so popular; not since the 1960s have artists, composers, playwrights, designers and the like enjoyed such prestige.

Could this be Tony Blair’s brightest legacy as he steps down as prime minister on Wednesday ?

True, given the attention that Mr. Blair has devoted to “saving” education, health and Africa, this is not how he would like to be remembered: Apart from some youthful guitar strumming, he is not a cultural animal. And it is of course not how he is likely to be remembered here: He will not be easily forgiven by many Britons for leading Britain into the Iraqi war.

Yet during his decade in office Britain has shaken off its creative lethargy and emerged as the liveliest cultural territory in the West. And even if Mr. Blair himself is not much loved in artistic circles, this metamorphosis has taken place under his watch.

So does he deserve credit?

In 1997, 18 years of Tory rule had left the country’s arts infrastructure in a dilapidated state. But it was actually the most recent Tory prime minister, John Major, who provided the key to sweeping renovation of cultural institutions when the arts were assigned a significant share of profits from a new national lottery.

In a sense, then, it was merely Mr. Blair’s good fortune to be at Downing Street when this vast investment bore fruit: Just in London, the British Museum, the Royal Opera House, Sadler’s Wells Theater, the National Portrait Gallery and Tate Britain were all modernized and expanded, while Tate Modern was created on the South Bank in London.

Still, his government did multiply the budget of the Arts Council of England in such a way that funds have flowed more generously into long-struggling cultural centers, theaters and orchestras that depend on subsidies to survive. Regional theater, virtually abandoned by the Tories, has also returned to life.

Further, in a popular -- and populist -- gesture, the government agreed to cover the additional cost of free entrance to 24 national galleries and museums. As a result visits to these collections have increased by 53 percent since 1997, with Tate Modern particularly successful in drawing people unaccustomed to visiting museums.

Two unrelated variables have also bolstered this mini-renaissance. Steady economic growth has fueled prosperity, and fat wallets have always helped the arts -- and, in this case, not only Britain’s market-savvy contemporary artists, like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Despite the high price of tickets for, say, West End theaters or the Royal Opera House, the public keeps coming.

At the same time, thanks to this economic growth and the new immigration that it has drawn, London has become Europe’s most international city. And this has enormously broadened its arts horizon: from being the capital of “Little England,” London now welcomes foreign culture: artists at Tate Modern, theater companies at the Barbican Center, modern dance troupes at Sadler’s Wells.

Yet, bizarrely, instead of celebrating cultural excellence as an end unto itself, Mr. Blair’s government has all too often preferred to camouflage its support for the arts either as an economic strategy to promote job creation in the cultural “industries” or as a tool for social inclusion intended to embrace ethnic minorities or disaffected urban youth.

Equally puzzlingly, only in March this year, during the countdown to his retirement from office, did the prime minister himself step forward to boast that London was now the creative capital of the world, its arts enjoying a “golden age,” “more confident, assertive, creative and alive” than a decade ago.

But while many cultural luminaries were willing to buy that claim, his speech was a one-off. His Downing Street Web site lists 17 “big issues” on which Mr. Blair expounds his views and achievements. These include Northern Ireland, Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan as well as numerous domestic issues, but not culture.

So has his designated successor, Gordon Brown, any incentive to identify with the arts? Certainly he has never displayed any interest in culture. Further, over the past 10 years, as chancellor of the exchequer and therefore head of the Treasury, he was always perceived as opposed to increasing government spending on the arts.

But as prime minister he now has a larger constituency to please. And on June 18 the opposition Conservative Party did him the favor of pointing out potential pitfalls.

The Tories’ culture spokesman, Hugo Swire, suggested in a newspaper interview that “we do not want to ban free admissions, but we believe museums should have the right to charge if they wish.” Such was the backlash, though, that Mr. Swire retracted his thought almost as soon as it had appeared in print. And presumably Mr. Brown took note: Free admissions to museums are now sacrosanct.

One issue that Mr. Brown cannot avoid, though, is financing of the 2012 London Olympics. With the cost of building the necessary infrastructure in east London now far exceeding original estimates, the arts world is already alarmed that the Department of Culture, Media and Sports will take from culture to give to sports.

The Olympics were of course intended as another feather in the cap of “cool” London, but the cost overrun and management disarray are already eroding popular enthusiasm for the games. And if the arts are called on to pay for this, Mr. Brown may well find the public sympathizing with the cultural world’s vociferous laments.

In a sense, then, this is Mr. Blair’s legacy. More than ever, a significant part of the British population takes a lively arts scene for granted. This may not have been Mr. Blair’s highest priority, but a combination of government policy, economic growth, artistic talent and, let’s face it, a cult of celebrity has given the public a stake in what might once have been viewed as an elitist pastime.

Mr. Blair may prefer to be remembered as a global statesman, but one day he may be happy to be associated with a cultural revival. Meanwhile, as he moves into 10 Downing Street, Mr. Brown may be wise not to forget that artists and intellectuals often have the last word on how politicians go down in history.