Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 16th September 2017
“Thank you. It is an honour to be invited to speak at your AGM. For those who don’t know who I am, I’m Sharon Hodgson, the Member of Parliament for Washington and Sunderland West and Shadow Minister for Public Health.
However, I am here to talk to you in another of my many capacities, and that is as an advocate for the arts in our society, along with being the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Art, Craft and Design in Education.
I have been an advocate for the arts for as long as I have been a Member of Parliament; understanding not just how important art can be to the wellbeing of society, but also, how important art can be to our economy as well.
These are both points I will touch upon in my speech today, but also about the importance of unionism.
As a proud trade unionist myself, I believe it is important for workers to unionise so they can collectively work together to improve their working environment and working life.
Unions are crucial in providing workers with a voice in the workplace that stands up for them, and this is why it is welcome to see artists – like yourselves – unionising.
We all know the exploitative pay and conditions that artists can face and the fact that artists are working more, for less pay; sometimes even for free.
Unionising also allows artists to show solidarity with other workers by affiliating to umbrella union groups such as the TUC, to work on shared campaigns from campaigning against cuts in art education or on pay and conditions.
That is why it is welcome that Art Union England is now an affiliated member of the TUC and attended the conference for the first time last week, where you raised the key issues of art and investment.
Art and the creative sectors that you all work in are crucial to society and our economy, and have a significant presence.
The latest figures show that the creative industries contributed £87 billion to the UK economy – that work out at roughly 5% of the total. Whilst the sector employed nearly 2 million people, around 6% of all UK jobs.
This just goes to show the importance of art to our society, and how we must ensure we help nurture this sector to continue to flourish.
This is why working with other unions to ensure that the views of artists are heard by Government, politicians and wider society is so important but also to consider different and innovative ways to ensure that art continues to remain a central part of our lives.
I read with interest the motion tabled by AUE at TUC conference in Brighton, which called for an agreement to be made amongst affiliated members that “1 percent of any new-build construction, renovation, conversion or major refurbishment … be spent on buying or commissioning of public art.” Or as it is commonly known Percent for Art schemes.
When reading further into this, it was interesting to see policies similar to this have been around in the USA and other European countries for a number of years. Take New York for example, which saw a policy like this introduced in 1982 and since then has seen nearly 300 projects completed with accumulated art work commissions of over $41 million.
This reaffirms the belief I have held for so long on the importance of art to society.
For me, art has been an integral part of our humanity ever since the dawn of time when the first caveman drew a buffalo on the first cave wall.
This is because art makes our hearts sing and therefore should be enjoyed by everybody, without any restrictions on access to great projects.
As the “A Policy for the Arts” white paper published back in 1965 by Jennie Lee, the first arts minister appointed in the UK by Harold Wilson, said art: “should not be regarded as something remote from everyday life.”
This is why a policy which incorporates art as a part of the commissioning process and spending on major public projects helps allow art to be a central part of public life, but also helps to reverse the concerning erosion of art in society due to short-sighted budget cuts.
Access to art in society is something I have campaigned on, including fighting to protect ancient heritage crafts to ensuring children have access to art that allows them to expand their horizons – but one of my main campaigns has been around the EBacc.
This is something that I have campaigned on in my capacity as Chair of the Art, Craft and Design in Education APPG, and I have worked closely with the National Society for Education in Art and Design and the Bacc to the Future campaign.
I have repeatedly called on the Government to address this issue – even bringing Nick Gibb, the school’s minister, before the Art, Craft and Design in Education APPG for nearly an hour and a half to discuss the impact of the EBacc on art subjects.
However, the concerns that this is negatively affecting the pipeline continue to go ignored. This is deeply worrying when the latest figures released following last month’s GCSE results showed a fall in the number of young people taking an Art and Design GCSE for the second consecutive year with the total number being the lowest since 2001, at a total of 3.2 per cent.
The current position we see is one of creative industries booming but education policies failing to recognise creativity will be one of the main drivers of our 21st century economy.
This is why it is important to have unions such as yourselves standing up for art – may it be through advocating for better financial support for the arts within wider infrastructure projects or against the disastrous policies facing our education sector.
As artists, you all have the knowledge and experience to go to the Government and lobby against the worst excesses of their policies and ensure that the next generation of artists after you are supported to achieve great things.
The way to do this is collectively and working across the labour movement – with other arts unions, such as the musician’s union and with education unions, such as the National Education Union and NASUWT, but with the Labour Party too.
So, I wish you luck in the future as your union grows and look forward to working with you all in the future to ensure that art continues to make our hearts sing. Collectively we can work to stop art from withering away and save an essential part of our humanity.
We must fight to protect art, champion art and invest in art at every possible opportunity.”