The Fine Arts

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 26th February 1960.

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Photo of Mr Anthony Greenwood Mr Anthony Greenwood , Rossendale 12:00 am, 26th February 1960

I should like to join with other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) on a masterly survey of the problem—a survey which deserved a fuller House. I do not wish to be discourteous to any hon. Member present, but it is a little depressing on these occasions always to see the old, familiar faces. It would be pleasant to see rather more of our colleagues attending when we have such matters under discussion. We all welcomed, however, the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Cordle). We on this side of the House were delighted to find that he is continuing the campaign of his predecessor to civilise the Conservative Party.

Over the last few years we have made considerable progress in the problems we are discussing today. We have gradually got more money out of the Government, and this has been done largely by concerted action on both sides of the House. It is nevertheless rather discouraging to find that we have to run so quickly to stay in exactly the same place. The only encouragement we can derive is that the present Financial Secretary looks more like Mr. Cheeryble than Mr. Scrooge. We hope that he will justify that optimism to the full this afternoon.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (Sir H. Kerr), whose work in this field all of us respect, and to whom we pay tribute, mentioned that he had had the privilege of being chairman of the Conservative committee which produced a document called "The Challenge of Leisure." I had the privilege of being the chairman of another committee, the Labour Party committee, which produced a document called "Leisure for Living."

I hope that the hon. Member will accept my assurance that it is only for the accuracy of the record and not in any sense of boasting that I remind the House of what The Times and the Guardian said about the relative merits of these two documents. The Guardian said: Leisure for Living 'deserves to be widely read. … Its quality does not lie in its specific recommendations, though most of them are welcome, hut rather in its state of mind, its maturity and taste, its zest for beauty, and its sympathetic understanding of problems unhurriedly discussed.The Times said: The superiority of Labour's [document] does not lie in the details of the measures it suggests. … It lies in the attitude of mind which the pamphlet evinces. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Diamond) said that until the crisis is severe the Treasury will not move. I thought that my hon. Friend was perhaps taking a rather optimistic view because, over and over again from the Arts Council, we have had the warning of crisis and, although we have made some progress, I am afraid that there has been an inadequate response from the Treasury.

The Annual Report of the Arts Council for 1956–57 is called "Art in the Red". The opening paragraphs of the 1957–58 Report contain these words: The Sadlers Wells crisis of last spring revealed a situation which has been expounded for several years in the Annual Reports of the Arts Council. The last Report, 'Art in the Red', predicted that closures and calamities were inevitable unless the scale of public patronage of the arts was forthwith increased. The crisis of Sadlers Wells was a major demonstration of the need for bigger subventions for the arts, but there is a graver crisis in the offing. The last Report we had from the Arts Council, for 1958–59, is called "The Struggle for Survival".

We have also had a number of other documents. For example, we have had the Annual Report of the Trustees of the Tate Gallery, in which we are told that in order to repair the deficiencies in the collection a capital sum of £100,000 is needed. When we last discussed this question, just over a year age, the Treasury made a proposal for helping the Tate, but the trustees still insist, in spite of the additional subvention which they have received, that the £100,000 capital payment is required.

What is happening in the Tate Gallery, as other hon. Members have said, is typical of what is happening in all our national institutions. It is not only a question of filling gaps in the existing collections but also a question of stopping what is good from leaving the country. I am glad that other hon. Members have stressed this. To quote the remark of my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North (Mr. Edelman), what is possible in Stuttgart and Rotterdam ought to be possible in this country. In order to stop these works of art from leaving the country, there ought to be more popular support from the Government, from local authorities, from industry and from private individuals.

We are faced with steadily rising prices in the art world, and it is becoming more and more difficult for private individuals to play their part, but it would be a pity on an occasion such as this if we did not express our gratitude to Mr. Alexander Maitland for the magnificent presentation which he has made to the National Gallery of Scotland and which is announced in the Press today.

We have also had the Quinquennial Report of the Standing Commission on Museums and Galleries.

I agreed with many of the points which the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) made about conditions in the British Museum. When a friend of mine, Mr. Paul Thompson, wished to write a history of the part played by Mr. John Burns in the development of the Labour movement in London, he found that the cataloguing in the manuscripts department of the British Museum was twenty-five or thirty years behind-hand. I put a Question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and in consequence he was able to announce that an addition to the staff is being made. That is only a very small instalment of what is required to give the British Museum the kind of help that it deserves and which we should give. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman stressed the point so strongly, just as my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson) has been plugging away at the question of the reading room for many years.

The Quinquennial Report states that, although the Government gave additional grants in January, 1959, the Commission believes that … there will remain a considerable number of cases where special grants will be necessary". The Report goes on to discuss the position of the individual institutions, and we see a very depressing picture. One of my hon. Friends referred to the war damage which still remains to be repaired in the British Museum. That is stressed in the Quinquennial Report. The Standing Commission goes on to say, too, that the London Museum is crippled through lack of space and that the necessary finance ought to be provided to enable them to acquire a site and building on the South Bank. The Commission says of the Tate Gallery: The outstanding need is the completion of the building". It goes on to deal with the Royal Scottish Museum and says: The reconstruction of the north-east and north-west wings has become a matter of real urgency". In the case of the Welsh institutions the Committee refers to the grants which have been made and adds: We are of the opinion that there is a strong case for raising these grants substantially in future years Before I leave the national institutions I want to refer to the plea made by the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet that there should be a charge for admission to the institutions. We discussed this subject in the House on a previous occasion, when the present Minister of Housing and Local Government, who was then Financial Secretary to the Treasury, convinced us that the revenue which would be obtained in this way would not justify the expense, the use of manpower and all the trouble which would be involved in levying it.

I found that a convincing argument. I am impressed, also, by the consideration that what one wants to do is not merely to provide the galleries and museums for people who are specially interested in works of art. One wants to make them available so that casual visitors can go into them and suffer no discouragement. It is similar to the principle that it is not only the abler pupils whom one wants kept on at school; we should seek to persuade the less able pupils to continue their education. It would be a retrograde step to put any discouragement in the way of people using our institutions or art galleries.

I hope that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will have something to say not just about the national institutions, but also about the provincial museums and art galleries.