I got a letter in the Evening Standard yesterday. It’s above. It makes a good punchy case.
It’s heavily cut down of course. Well fair enough. This is the longer version:
We can all quibble about the specific decisions – I’m saddened by the axing of Third Angel’s funding, for example – but on the whole I think the Arts Council has acted honourably and carefully. Rather than indiscriminately cut across the board, they have cut 206 organisations all together, increased some grants, reduced others, and brought 110 new organisations into long-term funding. Given the task in front of them, I think they’ve done as well as can be expected. It’s not just crisis management; it’s a forward-looking funding round.
It’s not a task they should have had to undertake. The Coalition claims that ‘we’re all in this together’. This makes no sense at all. Is the aim to get the deficit down? Then let the arts do their bit and increase arts subsidy – the arts bring in much more to the Treasury than it pays out. The cynical comment-boxers who love to moan on about how contemporary art and theatre is obscure and unpopular – take note: the arts are very popular. Arts subsidy is a very successful investment. The arts employ hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps millions; we export much more art than we import; the arts generate knock-on economic benefits to the tourism, restaurant, travel industries; the arts are a hugely successful part of our economy and it makes no economic sense to cut them because they pay for themselves and more. It’s not a choice, as some would have it, between hospital beds and theatre shows; the theatre shows help to pay for the hospital beds.
But the economic value of the arts isn’t the whole story. It’s not even the main story. What’s King Lear worth? How much should Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring cost? The fact the value of art translates extremely badly into economic terms. This is why the arts, though profitable, don’t fare as well with private sponsorship. Art sometimes takes a long time to make money (many treasured works of culture were rejected by critics and public when they first appeared); it can be economically very risky (if you were looking to make money, would you, in 1952, have sunk your inheritance in Waiting for Godot?). The great thing about subsidy is that it frees artists to make the most artistically interesting work they can. Everyone wants to find an audience, to engage a public, but if making money is your overriding imperative, it leads to conservatism and repetition. If the whole sector is trying to make the most interesting work they can, the evidence is that much of it does find an audience and the sector as a whole pays for itself.
But we’re all in this together, apparently. Last month, David Cameron threw up his hands and said he could do nothing about RBS’s proposed £950m of bonuses. This is a company bailed out and 84% owned by the taxpayer. This is also a company that lost £1.1bn last year. A little over 10% of those bonuses would have wiped out today’s arts cuts. Yes, we’re all in this together, but I guess some of us are more in this than others.
Professor of Contemporary Theatre
Royal Holloway, University of London