A simple lesson for Labour: a small cut leads to loud protest

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As government advisers caustically point out, actors, artists and musicians have a disproportionate ability to promote their own cause compared with the plight of single mothers or the disabled.

So when the Arts Council announces its distribution of grants from its frozen central pot next month, you can be sure we will hear about it - especially from the losers.

After the row in 1997, when the newly-elected Labour Government announced it would maintain arts funding at the levels set by the previous Tory administration - including a £2m cut for the Arts Council - the wrath of the arts community was endless and vocal.

The Government seemed to take the lesson to heart and, in 2000, responded with the single biggest increase in support for the arts in British history, a giant £100m increase over three years over a base of £237m.

The extra cash transformed the arts. In the words of Antony Gormley, the Turner Prize-winning artist, there was a "huge sea-change; there is a more widespread engagement with the arts in all their variety than ever before in this country".

Sir Christopher Frayling, of the Arts Council, described it last week as "a golden age".

A dedicated £25m towards regional theatre staved off bankruptcy in some and revitalised nearly 200 venues. A £10m injection of cash for orchestras was deemed a similar success. Free admission to the national museums and galleries saw attendances soar.

Better programming and improved buildings encouraged audiences to flock to venues such as Tate Modern and the National Theatre, with increasing numbers of people saying they wanted public funding of the arts.

Which is why there has been such bafflement at the Government's spending round announcement in December. The Department for Culture announced that the Arts Council grant would be frozen at its 2005 level of £411m for each of the next three years plus cash from efficiency savings. The Arts Council said that represented a £30m cut.

Regional museums received an increase of more than 100 per cent on their previous funding but it was still insufficient to roll out the Renaissance in the Regions programme which was designed to tackle the parlous condition of many institutions. And English Heritage also received a 4.6 per cent cut.

The Labour Government was presiding over "a betrayal of their very own electorate", Gormley said. Philip Pullman, the writer, predicted: "Some theatres and arts projects will die while others will be forced to become more commercial. It sends a message to the country that the Government is not interested."

What leaders in the arts are puzzled by is whether this is short-term realpolitik, driven by the need to bolster health and education funding before the election, or a backtracking on what had seemed a genuine commitment. Whichever, it is a "regressive step" that sends out a very negative signal, according to Vikki Heywood, of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Sir Nicholas Serota, of the Tate, said the danger was that the uncertainty created could potentially lead to a damaging loss of ambition and verve. "One thing that arts and culture really suffers from are short-term changes of tack on the part of Government in terms of funding. What they need is long-term certainty."

Stuart Rogers, executive director of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, said it would be "lunatic" now to undo all the good work of recent years by not even keeping pace with inflation. "We got an extra £500,000 over three years and that enabled us to do a fantastic investment in the amount of work and the quality of our work. As a result, we have doubled our audience and we've earned an extra £800,000 at the box office during that period ... If we get a stand-still grant, our wages still go up and our running costs go up, and the only savings are by chopping the work on the stage. That's the tragedy of it.

"That's really what we told Tony Blair. We said, 'You should be receiving great applause for what you've been doing for the arts but with this rather petty decision you're going to let it go away'."

Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, which is enjoying record audiences, said he did not think anyone was asking for more than inflation, but without at least maintaining current levels of support, the huge advances they had made could be lost.

They had proved they could use the money effectively, he added. "We had a big increase and the consequences of it were dramatic and highly beneficial. I can't think of another public service which has responded so spectacularly well to an injection of extra cash."

Sir Nicholas Serota added that the arts community had failed to convince the Government that culture was as important as health and education, which have received big funding boosts, or that it should be an intrinsic part of regeneration developments such as Thames Gateway. "If you see the number of people going to Tate Modern I think the evidence is there," he said. "But I've obviously failed to persuade Government that it matters as much as a new hospital or school," he said.