Needs of the Arts

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 23rd January 1959.

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Photo of Mr Anthony Greenwood Mr Anthony Greenwood , Rossendale 12:00 am, 23rd January 1959

On 19th March, 1956, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I initiated a debate on the National Gallery, as a result of which the Government made a handsome concession. They agreed to increase the miserable allocation of £10,500 a year to the hardly less miserable sum of £12,500 a year. I find it very difficult today to join in the general gratitude expressed to the Government for their so-called generosity. On that occasion, the then Financial Secretary to the Treasury, now the Minister of Housing and Local Government, said that he intended to make a thorough review of the whole subject. The difficulty with the right hon. Gentleman is that he is always so thorough that he is very slow in what he does—unless it is in raising the rents of millions of our citizens.

Those to whom I really am grateful are the hon. Member for Conway (Mr. P. Thomas), who brought this Motion forward today, and those of our colleagues on both sides, like my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) and the hon. Member for Cambridge (Sir H. Kerr), who, year after year, have brought this matter before the House and consistently brought pressure on the Government to treat the arts more generously.

Over the years, a mounting pressure has been brought to bear on the Government. It has been brought to bear by many organs of the Press. Papers like the Evening Standard, The Times, the News Chronicle, the Manchester Guardian, the Observer and the Sunday Times have all pleaded, month after month, for some relaxation of the Government's attitude.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, when he met the Press after a most successful tour of Wales a few days ago, spoke of the need to help the arts. He said: We have to face the fact that in a modern, democratic, non-feudal world it is wrong that we should have to rely upon a few wealthy individuals to finance these national enterprises. I think we have to do more as a community through the State for the arts and for museums as well. We shall make suggestions in greater detail later. We have, of course, referred to the subject in the document "The Future Labour Offers You," and the party will be later putting forward more detailed proposals.

We have now reached a desperate situation, and I believe that it is attributable in very great part to the economic policy of the Government. There has been an abundance of warnings to the Government on these matters. It must be almost without precedent in our political history that State-sponsored bodies such as the trustees of the National Gallery, the trustees of the Tate, and the members of the Arts Council should have spoken of the Government as strongly and as critically in their Annual Reports as these bodies have in the last few years.

The tragedy is that the spirit of neglect and parsimony that has dominated Government policy has been shown during a period of acute transition, when many works of art have been coming on to the market, and when, in spite of everything, there has been a growing interest and awareness of the arts. There is doubt that although the theatre and the cinema may be going through a period of decline at present, the interest in painting, sculpture, music and the ballet is probably now more widespread among us than ever before.

Unfortunately, I believe that the effects of the neglect will be enduring and that the present Minister of Housing and Local Government and the present Minister of Pensions and National Service have a very heavy responsibility for their policy in these matters when they occupied the position of Financial Secretary to the Treasury. Their policy, when in office, was in marked contrast to the policy of my right hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Glenvil Hall), my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan), my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton) and the late Sir Stafford Cripps.

During the period of neglect which has followed since the present Government took office, theatres have closed and been pulled down, works of art have been exported and the development of orchestras and operatic companies has been impeded. There must be many young men and women who might have contemplated taking up a musical career, but have been discouraged from doing so because of the uncertainty which hangs over the whole musical world in this country.

The hon. Member for Conway paid proper tribute to the new forms of patronage which have developed. The decision of the television programme contractors to help the arts was, no doubt, not entirely disinterested, but it was nevertheless welcome. The attitude of progressive local authorities, which has been referred to this afternoon, has also been extremely helpful. And I do not think that we should neglect to pay tribute to bodies like the Trades Union Congress and many commercial undertakings, as well as local authorities, who have set aside sums of money in order to incorporate works of art in new buildings for which they have been responsible.

But if this policy is to be continued, I believe that local authorities must receive greater encouragement than they have received during the past few years. I believe, too, that industrialists and others will have to be given tax concessions in order to help them to do the kind of things which hon. Members on both sides of the House have been asking that they should do.

As the Arts Council has pointed out, there is a great deal to be said in favour of the State not being the sole patron of the arts. I think the time is long overdue when we ought really to inquire into the extent of State responsibility in these matters. As my hon. Friends know, however, I am not at all happy about the suggestion of an interdepartmental committee. I should have thought the kind of body we need is one rather like that set up by the Gulbenkian Foundation under the chairmanship of Lord Bridges, to advise the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or whichever Minister is responsible for matters of this kind.

At this stage I wish to say to the Financial Secretary that I hope he will be able to accept the Motion moved by his hon. Friend, and also the Amendment which stands in the names of some of my hon. Friends, with, of course, an understandable reservation about the nature of the inquiry which would be set up. If the hon. and learned Gentleman is able to do that, I think we shall be able to end this debate on a note of unanimity which has not characterised all the speeches made so far.

Today we have discussed the great crisis in the arts and for a moment I wish to touch upon the position of the National Gallery, although, because of the lack of time, I shall not be able to discuss various other national institutions. I wish to remind the Financial Secretary that it is over three years since Lord Radcliffe expressed the view that the National Gallery ought to have £150,000 a year for ten years.

We heard from the hon. Member for Conway about the size of the grant which was received by the National Gallery in 1900–01—£5,700 a year. I wish to go further back than that. There were few years between 1865 and 1889 in which the annual grant to the National Gallery was less than £10,000 a year, almost the size of the grant paid today, in spite of the fact that at that time the purchasing value of money was about ten or twelve times what it is at present.

I do not think anybody can seriously doubt that we have starved the National Gallery and the other institutions during the past few years. Today we have heard about the gaps which exist in the National Gallery. At the moment, of course, it is completely beyond the power of the trustees to fill them. At home I have a rather elaborate filing system which sometimes works, and yesterday I looked up the newspaper cuttings about the prices of works of art during the past year.

All these figures which I am about to quote were taken from The Times: On 21st November, 1958, "15,000 gns. for a Bellini". On 10th May, 1958, "36,000 gns. for early El Greco". On 3rd July, 1958, "£33,000 paid for a Rubens sketch". On 16th October, 1958, "Seven Paintings make £781,000 in 21 mins. £220,000 for a Cezanne". When one sees figures of that kind, one realises how impossible it is for the trustees of the National Gallery to do the job as it ought to be done.

Every time this question has been raised in the House, the Financial Secretary has pointed out—I think a little over-complacently—the amount which has been donated by the Government in the form of supplementary grants for the purchase of particular works of art. I have always been disappointed in the hon. and learned Gentleman in that respect because he is an enlightened and sensitive person, and I have never quite understood his reasoning on this aspect of the problem. It is quite impossible for the Trustees of the National Gallery to plan the development of their collection on a basis of supplementary grants from the Treasury.

The weakness of the present position is threefold. First, there can be no planning; secondly, they can get these pictures only if there is a danger of a picture being exported, and thirdly, there is no provision at all for the acquisition of pictures to be bought in markets overseas. That policy, which has been forced on the trustees of the National Gallery, is in marked contrast with the Treasury Minute of 27th March, 1855, the contents of which no doubt are engraved upon the heart of the hon. and learned Gentleman.

Nor do I think the provisions of the Finance Bill, 1956, Section 34, are adequate. They are entirely fortuitous. They depend, first, upon someone dying; secondly, upon someone dying who happens to have a collection of pictures, and, thirdly, on someone dying who owns a collection of pictures which happens to meet the deficiencies in the National Gallery at that time. It is quite impossible for the trustees to develop, expand and maintain a national collection on this rather haphazard principle which has been dictated by the Treasury over the last few years.

I am afraid that the whole Administration of the National Gallery has continued to be fortuitous. The trustees are only going to be able to extend on the site in Trafalgar Square by virtue of the good fortune that the Canadian Government has decided that it does not want that piece of land. I should like to think that we were about to move into an era in which it was possible for our national collections to plan over a longer period, with adequate resources at their disposal. I believe that that will be the most economic way in which they can develop.

What I have said about the National Gallery is equally true of the Tate Gallery and the British Museum. You, Mr. Speaker, and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) know much better than I do the way in which the British Museum has been treated during the last few years, but I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson) and the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) exaggerated when they referred in such scathing terms to the treatment meted out to the trustees of the National Gallery.

I hope that the Government will appreciate the importance of our local art galleries and museums. I do not think that anybody should underestimate their importance. If anybody is in doubt of that they should study the attendance figures at some of the provincial art galleries and museums. The difficulty is that the trustees of those institutions and local authorities are finding it difficult to maintain them in the way they should be maintained, and most are finding it extremely difficult to find the resources to expand and develop their collections.

I hope that it will be possible for the Government to give some sort of additional assistance to the museum and art gallery service in the provinces. I should like to see this done on an ambitious scale, in the kind of way envisaged by the late Mr. George Tomlinson, but as Sir Philip Hendy pointed out only last summer, it need not be on an elaborate scale, because the machinery exists at the Victoria and Albert Museum. But the museum at present has only £2,000 at its disposal to help municipal provincial museums in that way.

I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will take into account all the suggestions that have been made about the future of the Arts Council. It is extremely embarrassing for the Council to have to decide exactly what forms of art to support and what forms to neglect. If the Government really insist upon opera having priority over other forms of art they should give the Council a special allocation for the support of Covent Garden, entirely different from that which is given to it to help it in its work of diffusing amenities for art throughout the country.

There are many other issues which I would have liked to touch upon, but time is running out, and in conclusion I would merely point out to the hon. and learned Member that hon. Members on this side of the House believe that the Govern- ment's economic policy, with the industrial stagnation which has resulted, has put the country in a very difficult position. But that point is not accepted by hon. Members opposite, and if our analysis of the situation is not accepted it greatly strengthens the argument for a more generous treatment of the arts and the national collection as a whole.

But even if the position is as grave as we believe it to be, I would remind the Financial Secretary of the words of Viscount Goderich, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on 23rd February, 1824. He said: … we ought not to be niggardly in matters that regarded the promotion of the arts. As a mere question of money, I do not say that objections may not be urged against any such proposition, as that which I am about to submit to the Committee. But taking a more enlarged view of the subject, looking at the intimate connection of the arts, with all that adorns and ennobles man's nature, it appears to me to be consistent with the true dignity of a great nation, and with the liberal spirit of a free people, to give a munificent encouragement to the support and promotion of the Fine Arts. Those were the principles upon which the National Gallery was founded, and I hope that they will be the principles upon which the hon. and learned Member deals with this subject today, so that we may have, not what The Times referred to this morning as "a stalling operation", but something much more radical and generous.