Arts Councils in both England and Wales have a chartered responsibility to make the arts available to the population at large, though it has to be said that ensuring this happened was not always pursued with vigour in policy actions in the past. However, since the new millennium there has been increasing recognition – prompted to a certain extent by the need to justify government funding at a time of resource constraints – that more consideration and energy needed to be devoted to examining ways the right to experience the arts/culture could begin to be accomplished. Programmes have been developed that seek to engage people in areas of England and Wales where involvement in arts/culture was noticeably below the national average or have been focused on disadvantaged communities. Some of these initiatives are outlined in chapters 2.6, 2.7 and 6.1. Programmes seeking to engage children and young people have also been pursued, though obstacles to such engagement are also evident (see chapters 5.1 and 5.2).
Several incidents in relation to topics being explored in theatre performances or exhibitions have raised fears that freedom of expression was under threat. The exhibition installation Exhibit B, being presented at the Barbican, for example, was closed down due to security concerns following protests. Arguably, this was ironical because the exhibition showed black artists and others deliberately posing as objects of scientific curiosity as they were displayed on occasions in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The intention according to artist Brett Bailey was to critique the dehumanisation of people during the colonial period. However, protesters accused the exhibition of racism and exploitation.
In 2015 the National Youth Theatre cancelled Homegrown, a play relating to three London schoolgirls who travelled to Syria to join Islamic State militants, when complaints were made by parents and some of the cast. A more recent illustration was the call by a Pro-Brexit campaign for the charitable status of the Photographers’ Gallery in London to be revoked and funding withdrawn for its hosting of Operation Earnest Voice, a project that explored the methods and strategies employed to influence public opinion – in this case by the Leave and Remain EU campaigns. The Gallery insisted it was operating within Charity Commission rules and did not give in. The outcome was different in the case of the Saatchi Gallery, which responded to criticism from visitors that an exhibition was blasphemous by placing sheets over the artwork at the request of the artist. The exhibit juxtaposed Arabic script of one of the five pillars of Islam with images of nude women. Arguably, it could have been foreseen that exhibiting such a provocative work would lead to problems, but the episode does raise the broader issue of how far the principle of freedom speech can be pursued. The authorities have power to close exhibitions, theatre performances or films adjudged to be obscene or where the police believe it will lead to public disorder and legal guidance for the cultural sector has been published by Index on Censorship and Vivarta (see chapter 4.1.1). However, episodes such as these led to a debate in Parliament in 2015 amid concerns that cultural organisations were self-censoring controversial or subversive work to avoid protests and ensure there were no threats to their public funding.
A survey on freedom of expression was conducted by Arts Professional and published in February 2020, which revealed that 70% of respondents would not criticize a funding source in case this affected future support and one-in six staff had been offered a financial settlement in return for keeping silent about circumstances within the organisation. This corresponds to some extent with a survey in 2019 by the Musicians Union, which revealed that half of respondents had experienced harassment in the workplace, but four in five had chosen not to report it. Arts Professional has launched a service, “We Hear You”, that provides cultural workers with a confidential space to share their concerns.
Another area where ethical questions have been raised is in relation to business sponsorship and donations and the extent to which cultural organisations should accept funds from commercial entities or individuals that may be associated with controversial activities, such as the oil industry and its impact on the environment. Such was the case with the Tate and BP, which sponsored some of Tate’s activities for many years, or the same cultural institution’s decision (as well as that of the National Gallery) in 2019 not to accept a large donation from the Sackler family because of the latter’s ownership of PurduePharma, which manufactured a drug alleged to have contributed to the opioid crisis in the USA. TheBritish Museum continue to accept BP sponsorship, but the Royal Shakespeare Company has chosen not to do so.