wed 17/07/2024

'We have a duty to all children to share our rich artistic history' | reviews, news & interviews

'We have a duty to all children to share our rich artistic history'

'We have a duty to all children to share our rich artistic history'

Transcript of mezzo Sarah Connolly's passionate advocacy of the arts at an ACE event in Westminster

Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly: 'I received the best musical training at a state-funded sixth form college'

Two hundred and 74 years ago today, on 14 September 1741, Georg Friedrich Handel completed the first edition of his legendary oratorio, Messiah. It is a work associated with children’s charity, and thanks to a royal charter granted to philanthropist Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury, Handel raised awareness and money for the orphans with performances every year for decades.

William Hogarth was a governor and he persuaded leading artists Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough to donate works, effectively creating at the hospital the first public art gallery.

Once there, a visitor would see not only the best in contemporary British portraiture, landscape and maritime painting, they would also see the children at mealtime and hear them singing in the chapel, and perhaps donate money. This public charity helped cure the symptoms of a deeply divided London society and Hogarth was able to showcase his colleagues’ paintings thereby inventing the notion of art for all.

Let’s never forget what we have in our keeping: a global reputation for cultural excellence

Jumping forward to 1940. In Britain’s darkest hour, when £643 million was spent on defence, Winston Churchill procured a royal charter to create the Committee for Encouragement of Music and the Arts, known as CEMA, and ring-fenced £25,000 for that purpose. A small but significant sum. Churchill clearly understood its importance, and said: “The arts are essential to any complete national life. The state owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them... Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due.”

Towards the end of the decade, CEMA changed its name to the Arts Council, local government authorised spending on the arts and, in 1951, the Festival of Britain was intended as a tonic to the nation. On London’s Southbank, the Royal Festival Hall was built, the interior designed by Robin Day who will shortly enjoy a centenary celebration in the London Design Festival.

The RFH featured concerts conducted by Sir Adrian Boult and Sir Malcolm Sargent, the two most influential British conductors up until the 1970s, and benefitted from many innovative arts programmes under the passionate stewardship of Jennie Lee, who also renewed the charter for the Arts Council in 1967. The Southbank Centre (pictured) continues to be at the heart of many different and inclusive projects such as Alchemy, a festival of culture connecting with the Indian sub-continent, and “Being a man”, a platform which considers children’s rights to culture and growing up. 

The reason why I’m giving this history lesson is to put into context the relevance and the importance of the arts in our history as a multi-cultural, sophisticated, inclusive nation, rich in humanity. Apart from music’s vital, holistic importance, let’s never forget for a moment what we have in our keeping: a towering and deserved global reputation for cultural excellence in our theatres, art galleries, cinemas, ballet and opera houses, stadia and concert halls, in our performers, writers, poets and composers. It is a fragile inheritance: all this could be lost, permanently, if we don’t continue to preserve and provide an artistic educational journey for all, from childhood to university and beyond.

The classical music industry is a small part of the economy, but for the health of the nation it is critical that funding continues. For too long, financial support has been seen as subsidy: in fact it’s investment with clear financial return. The economic benefits, however, are significant.

In 2012, 6.5 million music tourists spent £1.3 billion. In January 2015 the Department of Culture, Media and Sport issued for the first time more detailed estimates for the creative industries showing that in 2013, the gross value of the creative industries was £76.909 billion – that’s five percent of the UK economy. Music, performing and visual arts was estimated as being £5.453 billion, or 7.1 percent of the total. The number of jobs sustained by music tourism is just over 24,000 not to mention the benefits to surrounding communities. Of the live performing organisations, the total income (roughly equal to expenditure) in 2013 was just under £550 million. Include dedicated music schools, broadcasting and recording organisations, and this total figure rose to approximately £785 million.

For the number crunchers among you, these are some interesting figures with significant returns on relatively meagre investments but as your illustrious forebear – himself a painter – stressed, the importance of the arts is immeasurable. Nietzsche claimed that "Without music life would be a mistake". Robert Browning said, "There is no truer truth obtainable by man, than comes of music."

Many musicians work with hospices and hospitals. Manchester Camerata practitioners have been working alongside qualified music therapists since 2012 to deliver pioneering group music therapy sessions for people living with dementia and their carers. A growing base of academic research shows that the projects improve quality of life, self-expression, communication, confidence and logic, enhance relationships with others, and reduce the use of medication. This is one example of social activism through the arts, which has been a core consideration across all genres for many years.

As Michael Gove rightly said, “Music education must not become the preserve of those children whose families can afford to pay for music tuition.” The coalition government’s well-thought-out National Plan for Musical Education based on the excellent Darren Henley review created 123 music hubs with funding managed by the Arts Council. Awarding the Arts Council £75 million for 2015/16, the Department of Education says: “Music services should now be funded through music hubs (which can cover one or more local authority areas) and from school budgets, not from the Education Services Grant.”

Economic circumstances have put local authorities in a position where they will find it difficult and in some places undesirable to fund music education. Since music or any artistic subject is not planned for EBACC inclusion – a tragedy, in my opinion – the only recourse to a musical education will be these music hubs which are not self-sustaining financially and highly unlikely to generate enough income to exist alone. If the government could find a way of ring-fencing some local authority money for the arts then these hubs can supply the critical oxygen to those who most need it, enticing young society into doing something worthwhile, creative and enjoyable.

Another more feasible route would be if Ofsted were instructed to reward schools for their arts achievements. An "outstanding" grade cannot be given to a school with a poor arts programme. Lower-achieving schools can also raise their profile this way. It's a win-win. I was privately educated until my mid-teens but, without a doubt, I received the best schooling and musical training at a state-funded sixth form college in Nottingham in 1980. My experienced teachers, all of them excellent performers, were infinitely more qualified than those at my former school, and I would not be here but for their inspirational guidance.

I speak for my fellow students too, one of whom is a multi-Grammy winner as a classical music producer and another is a vocal coach to the stars in the West End. In the present climate, state-funded schools are struggling to focus on the arts and from KS4, curriculum-based arts are set to vanish and we will lose an enormous tranche of influence, talent, comment and life experience. I feel we have a duty to all children from all social backgrounds to share our rich artistic history and to think creatively. This is surely what Winston Churchill meant when he said, “The arts are essential to any complete national life”. Roosevelt said in his New Deal: “Art is not a treasure in the past or an importation from another land but part of the present life of all living and creating peoples.”

What musicians want is a snowball effect, retro-education: when the child learns so does the family. It could be called the Billy Elliot effect. We really are the envy of the world on many levels, punching so far above our weight in the arts, broadcasting and entertainment that it is a source of puzzlement to us (and to the outside world) why there is not more recognition of this. Last week Marin Alsop (pictured above © Chris Christodoulou) said, “It’s our responsibility as musicians and audiences to build bridges. El Sistema already has nearly a million kids (world-wide) playing music.” At the Last Night of the Proms she said, “The power of music is to unite us and to bring out the best humanity has to offer.” (Pictured above, children from El Sistema Scotland in Raploch.)

Orchestras, theatres, opera houses, art galleries, festivals like the Deal Festival in Kent, the Philharmonia, Glyndebourne, the Hallé, El Sistema UK run by Julian Lloyd Webber, the Royal Northern Sinfonia “In Harmony” projects based around The Sage in Gateshead, the BBC's successful and engaging 10 Pieces project and many others receive invaluable financial grants from the Arts Council. Musicians put their utmost into helping those who haven’t the means to pay for tuition or who struggle to rent an instrument.

We need audiences in the future. We need passion from politicians to lead by example. So come to our concerts – we’d love to see more of you – and just ask us to help with any idea, however humble, because "were it not for music," said Disraeli, "we might in these days say, the Beautiful is dead".

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