Exclusive: UK shadow culture secretary to map out first national infrastructure plan for the arts

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A new Labour government would put the creative industries “at the heart” of its plans for economic growth while embedding the Whitehall culture department in the UK regions, the British shadow culture secretary will say in a speech today.

In an exclusive interview with The Art Newspaper, Thangam Debbonaire pledged to be a “national champion of the arts” if a Labour government is voted into power at the UK’s next general election.

Debbonaire, a former professional cellist, was appointed by Labour leader Keir Starmer as the shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport on 4 September. She will lay out her plans at the Labour party conference in Liverpool at 2pm today.

“Growing the economy is Labour’s number one mission,” she said in her office in the Houses of Parliament in London. “The creative industries bring us joy, but they are also incredible generators of jobs, growth and wealth —in the right circumstances. A Labour government would consider them as essential to economic growth.”

According to recent research, one in three UK artists doubt they will be able to continue to work professionally within five years due to the severity of economic pressures. Asked what her message is to such artists, Debbonaire said: “Your champion is coming. I am in your corner and I am here for the long haul.”

“A Labour government would celebrate you and find every single way possible to support you,” she said.

During her speech, Debbonaire will note that more than half of jobs in the creative industries are in London.

The speech will outline a radical plan to decentralise the focus of power away from Whitehall and towards creative communities across the UK’s regions. The plan, titled Space to Create, will seek to embed civil servants from the department for culture, media and sport (DCMS) in communities far from the traditional power centre of Westminster.

They would be tasked with focusing on the specific cultural needs of the region, and, in particular, on shielding art organisations that are facing economic strife. “We need to protect the cultural spaces we already have,” Debbonaire said. “Everybody knows a pub theatre which is about to close down, or a local gallery or music venue which can’t pay its bills. If we lose those spaces, we lose the pipeline for young and emerging talent.”

As part of the initiative, Debbonaire has also pledged to create an integrated, digital and “intelligence driven” map of all the cultural spaces across the UK, from established museums and commercial galleries to informal artist studios and performance spaces. The map would also track which cultural hubs have access to public transport and include details on population demographics and projections.

“A single map of this sort does not exist right now, and it should,” she said. “It will act as the central point of focus in DCMS, and it would allow us to make better informed decisions.”

The map would act as a resource for civil servants in central government and local authorities. But it would also be designed as a resource for local arts organisations, businesses and stakeholders, Debbonaire said. “There’s so much going on in the creative sector. But one of the things I’m learning is that it isn’t necessarily linked up,” she said. “A map like this would be a tool through which the sector can share knowledge.”

Asked about funding for the Space to Create scheme, Debbonaire said: “The plan has no cost attached to it. It’s about redirecting our focus.”

Debbonaire has also pledged to install a visa waiver system for artists working in Europe, in what she describes as a renewed “bond of trust” with colleagues in the European Union. “That is a priority for us,” she said. Action on current copyright and artificial intelligence abuses were also promised, as well as potential amendments to the Online Safety Bill which has concerned some artists groups for its potential censorious powers.

“Copyright has to be sorted out,” Debbonaire said. “It absolutely has to be. You can’t have a situation where there are large areas of the world that are allowed to breach your copyright and just scrape your work.”

Asked if she would legislate on copyright law, Debbonaire said: “I don’t know yet, and I don’t want to say anything definitive yet. We’re just at the early stages. Peter Kyle [the shadow secretary for science, innovation and technology] and I have barely had time to breathe, let alone talk to each other. But it would be a cross departmental piece of work and I’m looking at what the possibilities are. I’m listening to a lot of concerns and suggestions from within the sector. There are some good ideas out there on what we might be able to do next to act on the issue.” 

Debbonaire also expressed concern about the potential of artificial art creation generators. Such tools have the capacity to corrode an artist’s ability to earn a living through their work, she said.

“Artificial intelligence can be a force for good, if properly harnessed,” she said. “But creativity with the human hand and the human eye is, for me, a part of what makes us human. It defines the fact that we are human. If we take that away, and if we take away the potential to earn a living from our art—we do so at our peril.”

Debbonaire is a supporter of the Online Safety Bill but recognises the concerns of some activists, who think the bill does not sufficiently safeguard freedom of expression and weakens digital encryption and anonymity.

“The purpose of this bill is to keep children safe. I don’t think anybody disagrees with that,” she said. “But how is it going to shape up in practice? I think there will always be places where you need to think about what the guidance looks like. We will make sure that the guidance protects artists’ work.”

Since the election of the Conservative party in 2010, DCMS has had 12 separate culture secretaries. Since the Brexit referendum in June 2016, the department has had nine.

Asked if she would commit to spending at least a full parliamentary term in DCMS, Debbonaire said: “I’m intending to be in this job for the long haul. That’s Keir’s plan. And that’s my plan.”

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