A divided culture: Could the arts unite us?

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A divided culture: Could the arts unite us?

Philanthropists in the Victorian era pursued the ideal of making art and culture accessible to the wider public, an aspiration which was reaffirmed by the post-war establishment funding for the arts [1]. However, this long-held principle of widening access to culture for the many has come under increased strain - in recognition of the fact that the benefits of public funding for the arts do not appear to be equitably distributed.

Data shows that there is still a 17 percentage point gap between higher and lower socio-economic groups on the very lowest bar of arts ‘engagement’ - one visit to the arts over the last 12 months [2]. The Warwick Commission demonstrated that wealthier people benefit disproportionately from the subsidy afforded to the arts [3]. Alongside this, we know there are geographic regions in the UK with almost no engagement with publicly funded activity, with some people living within cultural ‘black spots’ where there is no activity at all.

The overarching challenge of the next ten years is to ensure that audiences in the UK do not drift further away from the arts. Continued pressure on public funding and the Brexit settlement looks likely to deliver low levels of growth, leaving organisations with fewer resources to target new audiences. Geographical divisions could also increase, with smaller arts organisations outside the capital struggling for relevance and reach in areas where the creative economy is weaker.

In this more dystopian projection of the future, arts and cultural organisations will struggle to correct or overturn these unequal patterns of participation. Programming and curating along established lines which perpetuate a narrow definition of cultural activity would entrench the idea of public culture as something to be enjoyed by a narrow group.

The challenge of staying relevant

This pessimistic vision overlooks the real opportunities for arts and cultural organisations over the next decade though, particularly with regards to demographic change. Firstly, there is the chance to realign the missions of some arts organisations to cater specifically for the ageing population - a demographic that will both grow in size, and - perhaps more importantly - also provide the majority of consumption growth over the next decade [4]. Secondly, the arts and cultural sector can become more adept at meeting the demands of the Millennial and Gen Z audiences - who are likely to value authenticity, novelty and experiential work more highly [5].

This more positive conception of the future sees the sector embracing a view of culture beyond the ‘traditional’ art forms and towards aspects of culture embraced more broadly. There are signs that cultural production with the audience may be gaining traction. David Jubb at Battersea Arts Centre has advocated for a co-produced model for arts activity [6], and the work of 64 Million Artists has recently highlighted the creativity driven by everyday citizens [7]. This is something that young people with increasing access through technology are heavily involved with - as the tools to create music and video are no longer a barrier to expression and platforms give access to global audiences.

The underlying question then, is whether over the next ten years the strategies of arts and cultural organisations will reinforce assumptions about what culture is meaningful to the society, or whether their work will break down social barriers, rather than reinforcing them.


[1] Kawashima, N., (2000), Beyond the Division of Attenders vs. Non-attenders: a study into audience development in policy and practice

[2] DCMS (2017) ’Taking Part Survey: England Adult Report 2016/17.’ London: DCMS

[3] The Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value (2015) ‘Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth.’ Coventry: University of Warwick

[4] Dobbs, R. et al., (2016) ‘Urban World: The Global Consumers to Watch.’ McKinsey Global Institute

[5] Schneider, P., Bakhshi, H. and Armstrong, H. (2017) ‘The Future of Skills: Trends Impacting on UK Employment in 2030.’ London: Nesta

[6] ubb, D. (2017) ‘How can cultural centres also be community centres?’ Battersea Arts Centre blog. See,


[7] 4 Million Artists (2016) ‘Everyday Creativity: from Great Art and Culture for Everyone, to Great Arts and Culture by, with and for Everyone.’ 64 Million Artists


Sam Mitchell

Sam Mitchell

Sam Mitchell

Programme Manager, Digital Arts & Media

Sam Mitchell was a Programme Manager in the Digital Arts & Media team at Nesta

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