VIEWPOINT / Late again: David Lister, Independent Arts Correspondent, on the Budget

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The Independent Culture
WHEN an Arts Council chairman who contributes to Tory party funds calls the budget's results for the arts 'a national disgrace', you'd think that it might worry the Heritage Department.

But apparently not. Insiders there tell me they are very proud of their boy for putting up a spirited fight against the Treasury's Michael Portillo who, left to his own devices, would have made a black day even blacker. 'We do give the arts a pretty large sum of money you know,' a senior civil servant assured me.

'But large in what sense?' I asked. 'Large compared to motorways?' He looked a little aghast. 'Now that's a different debate, a very different debate,' he said, making me feel like the man in the Bateman cartoon.

Publicly funded theatre, opera, dance and classical music received a pounds 3.2m cash cut. But Peter Brooke announced an pounds 11m restoration of the Albert Memorial. A spanking clean prince will look out on a Royal Albert Hall that might struggle just to find a symphony orchestra to put on the stage.

The arts have got to get across the message, by lobbying effectively over a full year, not just in the weeks leading up to the budget, that tiny sums of money have disproportionately beneficial effects for the quality of life, and small cuts likewise cause disproportionate harm.

The arts are an investment as much as a subsidy. The VAT that the Treasury collects on theatre tickets in London alone amounts to more than the whole of the Arts Council's drama budget. It should not be beyond Mr Brooke to get this message across to Mr Portillo.

Next, the performing arts may have to grit their teeth and make their case against competing claims. That, sadly, is the reality of politics.

Ministers are entirely unimpressed by the sort of starry mass rally that was staged last week, not least because it was too late. The budgets were already set. What happened to those drama school lessons on timing? The arts world must suggest the priorities rather than have them chosen for them. I will start the ball rolling with this one: I would rather the Albert Memorial stayed under its plastic sheeting and the millions of pounds were ploughed instead into theatre and music.

The benefits of this would be felt far beyond Kensington. And then there is the argument that the arts as a whole are hopelessly underfunded. But that, as the man from the ministry would say, is a very different debate.

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