Arts for everyone is cheap considering its rich returns
A 25% cut won’t be plugged by philanthropy. To take this paltry sum is a political gesture, not a financial necessity
In less than a year shrouds will be waving, bloody stumps displayed with empty begging bowls as the coalition lays into public services. It will be hard to tell who is most seriously injured as attention focuses on rising hospital waiting lists, or falling hopes for a blighted, workless generation.
So how does the cause of the arts make itself heard in that maelstrom? Protesting thespians may get short shrift. Arts and heritage people are all too aware of their low priority in the pecking order of pain. While other ministers fight their corner, Jeremy Hunt is eager to offer up sacrifices from the Department for Media, Culture and Sport, keen to be first to settle and win a place on the star chamber to pass judgment on cabinet foot-draggers trying to defend their departments from impossible 40% cuts. So who will defend the arts? The axing of the UK Film Council sent a shudder through the sector this week.
Start with the hard business case – the easiest, though not best, case to make. The arts generate growth: for a minuscule budget of £1bn, Britain gains its international reputation as a great cultural centre, drawing people to music, theatre, galleries and museums. If financiers and stateless companies rarely carry out their tax-avoiding threats to decamp to Dublin, Zurich or Dubai, London’s cultural dynamism helps keeps them rooted here.
As every party promises to rebalance Britain’s economy away from finance, the creative industries are a fast-growing sector. Between 1997 and 2007, they created two million new jobs and £16.6bn in exports. Culture drives tourism, worth £86bn in 2007. Heritage sites, equally fearful of cuts, employ another 270,000 and draw in more tourists. Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture brought 15 million visitors, making £800m for the local economy. The return from a tiny government investment is probably greater in the cultural industries than any other – every £1 the Arts Council England puts in generates another £2 from commercial sources. In the north-east, a consortium including The Sage and Baltic reported this week that every £1 of state aid brings in £4 locally.
As Margaret Thatcher believed in the 1980s, this government thinks it can withdraw funds and urge philanthropy and corporate sponsorship to fill the gap. It didn’t work last time when the arts were crippled by cuts – and it won’t work this time. Leading multimillion-pound donors wrote to the prime minister last week warning that philanthropy would not fill the shortfall. Conservatives claim that other countries’ tax systems encourage far more arts sponsorship, but a report last week found that Britain’s tax breaks are among the most generous in the world, and may soon be more generous than the US’s. Cutting state funding discourages private giving: as the state cuts, so do matched funders in this finely balanced mixed economy.
Arts leaders warn that threatened cuts – 25% or more – mean one in four of the 200 Arts Council-funded bodies will close, theatres will go dark, museums will shut for part of the week, with few blockbuster exhibitions or new commissions. The Arts Council is wisely careful not to cry wolf. Its operating costs are already pared down to 6.6% – leaner than most private companies. It took an abrupt 5% funding cut this year, and lost 17.5% of lottery money to the Olympics. It says it can absorb 15% of cuts over four years, though that still means closures.
But there is a tipping point beyond which deep damage will be done: 25% is impossible. The difference between that 15% and 25% is just £45m of grant-in-aid; such a small sum yet all the difference between the sector surviving and failing. To cut this paltry extra pound of flesh would be a political gesture, not a financial necessity. Hunt should make the business and cultural case for protecting this national investment – seedcorn for a growth industry.
This has been an arts golden age, flourishing as rarely before. Contrary to Mark Ravenhill’s assertion in the Guardian this week, more new plays are put on now than ever – 45% of all productions. Nor are the arts fat on administration, as most people work in the arts for remarkably little. Arts are regenerators. The New Art Gallery in Walsall, a mini-Bilbao, breathes life into the town, but local council cuts already mean shutting on Mondays, with far worse to come. “Philanthropy in the Black Country? There’s no such thing!” says its director.
Some 76% of people attend some arts event at least once a year. If Ravenhill thinks education irrelevant, he should have been at the South Bank two weeks ago, where 500 people, many from local schools and youth orchestras, performed Bernstein’s Mass to rapturous reviews. Or visit the RSC’s campaigning programme that has Shakespeare performed by hundreds of schools for the first time. Schools will miss the theatre and music they work closely with.
What is the “big society” if not arts for everyone? Tiny grants already stretch far into communities, making music, dancing and art, engaging with history and heritage, drawing people together in shared emotions and experiences. Civic pride, quality of life, pleasure and endeavour (and art for arts sake) is cheap for its rich returns, but it’s not free.