1 April 2020
My old friend Tom Piper, set designer and co-creator of the Tower of London Poppies installation, has been using his time on lockdown to tidy up his files. As a result of his labours, he found the guest list for an event from early 2009 held in No.11 Downing Street to launch New Deal of the Mind: a creative response to the Great Recession. We were inspired at the time by the Roosevelt-era Works Progress Adminstration. which put artists to work on creative projects during the 1930s. Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko were both WPA alumni.
It was quite a gathering, hosted by Alastair Darling and his wife Maggie (an unsung patron of the arts). Andy Burnham and James Purnell, then in Gordon Brown’s Cabinet, were prime movers in the initiative, designed to tackle youth unemployment by harnessing the power of the creative industries. What struck me at the time was the energy which with which the creative community pulled together in an emergency. Tony Hall, then at the Royal Opera House, Jude Kelly, who was running the Southbank Centre, Mark Thompson, Richard Sambrook and Alan Yentob at the BBC, Jenny Abramsky at the Heritage Lottery Fund, Christopher Frayling at the Royal College of Art, Trevor Phillips at the Commission for Racial Equality – it was a genuine coalition of the willing from across the creative sector, government and civil society. And the whole thing was organised from a spare desk at the University of the Arts with the help of Professor Lorraine Gamman, journalist Suzanne Moore and music producer Ben Woolf.
I was reminded of the event by a piece in the Guardian this week, in which Hans-Ulrich Obrist, creative director of the Serpentine Gallery, once again summoned up the spirit of the WPA. “With the WPA, they went out into the community: artists got salaries and were able to research and create work during the New Deal era. It gave many people their first real jobs and commissions,” he said. He is absolutely right.
New Deal of the Mind became the charity Creative Society, which still helps young people break into the arts, media and the wider creative sector. But we are a tiny player. Many of the people who met in Downing Street 11 years ago are still around – some in even more elevated positions. Maybe they can persuade Rishi Sunak to reconvene the meeting (over Zoom or Houseparty) to address the crisis young people face today.