Arts Council to 'speak up for libraries'

The Arts Council has given the first indication of how it intends to approach its forthcoming responsibility for libraries by publishing a review of its strategic goals.

ACE will take on libraries and museums when the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) winds down this autumn. The review, conducted by one-time Labour education secretary Estelle Morris, discusses the goals identified in the Arts Council’s recent strategic document “Achieving Great Art for Everyone” and looks to develop them so that the role played by libraries and museums are included.

Morris’ report says there is common ground for libraries, museums, art and performance, in that all play a vital role in enabling people to be active, engaged and empowered citizens. Speaking to The Bookseller, Morris said that dealing with the practicalities of the issues of library closures was not what she was asked to do. “The problem I was trying to address was that when the government said the MLA was going to the Arts Council, the Arts Council had already gone through an extensive consultation to produce ‘Achieving Great Art for Everyone’. They said: ‘We want to give a clear message. We want to change the document so that museums and libraries feel it is their home’.”

Morris said she had tried to provide a single narrative that would unite all the areas now covered by the Arts Council, with each able to subscribe to the idea that they were “absolutely essential to a civil society”.

A spokesperson for the Arts Council described Morris’ report as an “icebreaker” which would begin a conversation with stakeholders and lead to a more detailed document to be published in September. “This is a challenging time for all arts and cultural organisations and of course libraries are no exception,” the spokesperson said. “It’s important that the case is clearly made for the central role that libraries play in peoples’ lives and in our communities—a role Estelle highlights in her report. The Arts Council’s new wider remit will, we hope, support this. For the first time we can have a single conversation at a local level about arts and culture; we can become an advocate and champion for libraries and museums as well as the arts—giving them a stronger collective voice.

"We want to work even more collaboratively with local authorities, whose budgets are also under pressure, prioritising partnerships with those authorities who show a real dedication to and investment in, culture.”

But library campaigner Desmond Clarke criticised the review as “verbiage” which would not convince council leaders bent on wielding the axe that public libraries are really needed. He said: “They are trying to shoehorn the needs of the library sector to fit in with the functions of the Arts Council. An image came into my mind of the ugly sisters trying to fit their foot into the glass slipper.”

Clarke predicted that the report would end up gathering dust on shelves or consigned to the bin by council chiefs.

Former MLA chief Roy Clare, Newcastle’s director of libraries Tony Durcan and British Library chief Dame Lynne Brindley were among the 23 people involved with museums, literature and libraries who were consulted during the six-week period in which Morris wrote the report. Clarke said Morris had talked to the “same old people”, saying: “If the Arts Council does not get a real grip and find out what people really want from a public library service, its involvement will be doomed to failure.”

The full report can be read at www.artscouncil.org.uk/publication_archive/review-arts-councils-strategic-framework/.