Berating politicians will not bring public money back to the arts

the voters call the tune

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I don't often feel sorry for politicians, but I spared a prayer the other day for Chris Smith. This week, the withdrawal of grants to one London theatre, following the Arts Council's cut in funding from the Government, has provoked a sort of Wagnerian fury, most of which has fallen around the head of the poetry-reading Secretary of State for Culture. And he was subjected to a double-pronged attack by Sir Peter Hall and Lesley Garrett while finishing the nice lunch provided by arts guru Melvyn Bragg; not the ideal mood music for your dessert.

A debate over arts funding in Britain could be a good thing. If it brings the public rushing to the artists' defence it will be marvellous. If it were, better still, to bring the public rushing to put their hands in their pockets and their bums on the seats it would be even better. Best of all, if it persuades our politicians to force the arts higher on the list of the Treasury's priorities, then we enter the kingdom of heaven. However, there is a long way to go before that happens.

What accomplished artists at the top of their professions, such as Sir Peter and Miss Garrett, may not have grasped is that, sadly, their genius for combining artistic achievement and pulling power is exceptional. For the most part, the publicly supported arts world does not manage both tricks at the same time. That is why they need public funds. But in order to gain public funds at a higher level, we need to win over the public; and howls of outrage at a popular government are not the best start.

This may provoke renewed cries of "Uriah Heep": but I think that genuine supporters of the arts can see that there is little mileage in being stupidly butch. It may make for marvellous speeches; but life is not a play, and rhetoric will not make much difference to the opportunities open to real artists in the real world. There are a few home truths that need to be registered if we are to have any hope of improving the appalling position of artists and arts organisations.

First, the fact that people come to cultural events, whether film, theatre, visual arts or music, does not mean that they think that the taxpayer should provide more money for these activities. All the signs are that the public does wonder why it has to back artists in this way. New voices in Parliament mutter that there is no reason why the public should support opera or theatre, when football has to make its own way; and they do not all come from the unreconstructed Tory right. It is not good enough to shout "philistine" or "brute"; this is not a convincing argument when used against a smart-suited New Labour government that includes one of our greatest actresses. It also sounds utterly hypocritical from people who told us only a year ago that New Labour would save the nation. What are people to make of the principles of those who squeal when they find that their particular vested interest is not first in the queue for rescue? Were we in the arts asleep when Gordon Brown promised to continue Tory spending policies?

Second, it is true that several years of stand-still funding have left many arts organisations on the verge of collapse, desperately searching for more and more crowd-pleasing (and often unadventurous) ways of making the books balance. But it is also true that hardly anyone asks whether we need the number of arts organisations we have, or whether they are the right sorts of institutions for the 21st century.

The Greenwich Theatre, for example, has over the past two years swallowed more than half-a-million pounds of public money. Its board, which includes some outstanding people who know about theatre, could hardly be regarded as novices or incompetents. Yet, audiences have fallen steadily, and the deficit has risen to over pounds 200 000, with no sign of either trend being reversed. In spite of some critical success, on average fewer than three out of 10 seats were filled by paying customers last year. The audience for the kind of theatre put on at Greenwich has disappeared from south- east London, and no matter how many big names are imported, this is no longer a viable proposition.

Third, the fact that an arts organisation once had public funding does not mean that it should retain it for ever. Unless governments were able to guarantee a larger proportion of public money for the arts every single year, that would mean that no new artists could ever gain access to public support. That doesn't leave much room for the emerging talents from, say, the minority communities who do not want to do theatre or music the way it has traditionally been done, and do not want to have to rely on a white sponsor to get their work done. The funding system has to be able to refresh itself: as some come in, others must go out.

Fourth, don't let's be sniffy about the role of non-Treasury funds. The contribution to bringing on new talent in the partnership between the London Arts Board and Sir Cameron Mackintosh is a lifeline to many of the capital's young artists; and writing as chairman of the LAB, I can cheerfully say that anyone else who wants to put up money for artists and arts organisations can call me up any time. But we should not rest our hopes on the much-hoped-for lottery pot of gold; new legislation may well make it possible to use lottery cash for people instead of palaces - as ever, demand will dwarf supply.

Finally, there may be a belief that like most previous governments, ministers in this one will back down once they realise - shock, horror, gasp - that they may not be invited to opening nights if they don't roll over. Forget it. Even if they believed that, the big men in this Government probably wouldn't care much; they buy their own tickets and are proud of it. This lot will not be frightened by anyone except the voters.

And that perhaps is where we all need to turn our attention. Berating people who have been elected to do what they are doing simply suggests arrogance. The case for public investment is not yet made in spite of the gallant efforts of many - the National Campaign for the Arts, for example. Shouldn't all the glamorous firepower be directed towards creating a compelling case for the arts being funded with public money? Nobody argues about money for libraries, even when they are late in being built, and the shelves don't work. The same could not be said about the opera. We need, as a prerequisite, to show that we are managing the arts effectively and efficiently; and that where the public's money is being used it is being used to back work that is high quality and innovative.

But the overriding case for public investment in the arts is not economic, or social, or political; it is not even the value of the arts themselves. All of these reasons could equally be supported by private donations. No, the case lies in the simple fact that, as a society, we need artists to tell us our own story, to make sense of the world we are in and to reflect our values and morals in a variety of ways. But if we are to have this done honestly, and without the hand of political or commercial despots inserting a distorting lens between the artist and the audience, there must be untainted backing from a neutral source, and the Treasury is as close as we'll come to it. The real case for public investment in the arts is not that it makes our society rich or that it keeps artists supplied with canvas and oils; it is that it is the only hope of keeping us honest about ourselves.

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