Value for money? The arts have nothing to fear

It makes money; it develops projects; it creates high earners, as well as employing large numbers of dedicated people who work for almost nothing

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The Independent Online

The Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, made a speech this week which caused a certain amount of shock in the arts establishment.

“When times are tough and money is tight,” she said, “our focus must be on culture’s impact.” The emphasis of her speech was on government spending on culture as seed money, and investment. When spending on culture results in income, then all well and good, and “government spending unlocks further funding”, in her words. The implication was that where it can’t be shown that government money results in profits, the tiny arts budget may very well be directed elsewhere.

Income resulting from government investment seems quite innocuous as a criterion. You can’t, surely, expect a government to go on shovelling money into lost causes? What went for British Leyland in the early 1980s ought to go for a theatre company that no one wants to see. Following the analogy further, as Ms Miller did not, why should the Government be funding stuff that people actually do want to see? What is the possible justification for giving, say, the National Theatre money to stage a new Alan Bennett play which will sell out the moment it is announced? If something fails, why fund it? I mean – the Royal Opera House isn’t at all likely to make a profit. But if it did, if something were to succeed, why was it funded in the first place?

Well, put like that, the absurdity is obvious. On the whole, we fund culture because we believe it’s good for us. It doesn’t cost a lot – Ms Miller was at pains to say that “almost £2bn of taxpayers’ money” will go to the arts “over the lifetime of this parliament”. That sounds a lot, until you reflect that using the same aggrandising tactic, the Government will spend nearly £4.2 trillion on welfare over the same period. A small amount of thought, analysing not just the cost benefits in tourism and employment but the social benefits of an active arts sector in a community, would easily prove that public funds are repaid many times over.

Actually, the arts sector has nothing to fear from the most philistine and brutal assessment of its benefits. It makes money; it develops projects; it creates high earners, as well as employing large numbers of dedicated people who work for almost nothing. Personally, I think the arts would very much prefer to work without the intrusion of official concern. But given that, in many areas, that is now an impossibility, it shouldn’t be hard for them to demonstrate that they are a positive good, leading in the most direct way to the most positive results.

If only Ms Miller’s criteria could be applied across government spending, we all might be a great deal better off. What about the millions spent on cancelling the InterCity West Coast franchise operation? Who was there to say “our focus must be on the impact” when billions are frittered away on consultancy fees across government? What consequences follow when consultancy firms are paid huge sums to reduce the welfare budget and achieve almost nothing?

A local art gallery gets a small grant from public funds, and is asked what it has achieved in return for it. It is probably going to be easy for it to say how many visitors the gallery had, what efforts it made to reach new audiences, what effect they had on tourism, how a cafe on the same street is doing well with visitors who want a cup of tea, what was written about it, how popular it is with the local community, how ex-employees have gone on to greater things, how someone is writing a book which talks about the Frith that’s been there since 1864. A doddle.

Now imagine asking the consultants who are employed by government what positive effect they have had on the local or national economy. Sometimes there will be an answer. All too often, alas, the only realistic response is: “I took a few million of your money, and distributed it unevenly among my staff, who used it to benefit their local economies, restaurants and shoe shops in their own ways.” The people who were paid billions to install a central NHS computer system – what criteria are present to ask them whether they used public money as effectively and resourcefully as, for instance, the Sheffield Crucible Theatre did? The arts, I believe, should have nothing to fear. If only the rest of the recipients of public money had anything to fear at all.

Mrs T and her Cabinet

The first volume of Charles Moore’s magnificent biography of Margaret Thatcher was out this week. It abounds with sly incidental pleasures, including the first-time testimony of Mrs Thatcher’s sister Muriel and the surprising presence of rather a lot of besotted homosexuals in her court. One authorial decision, initially rather eccentric-looking, tells a very interesting story. As each significant player enters, their biography is briefly given in a footnote, beginning with their education. At first, as Mrs Thatcher enters politics, these have a homogeneity: “educated Eton and Christ Church, Oxford… Eton and Christ Church… Eton and Christ Church… Eton and Balliol College… Winchester and Magdalen College… Harrow and University College… Eton and Corpus Christi College…”

But as the volume goes on and new figures rise to prominence, the uniformity starts to disappear: “Houghton-le-Spring Grammar School and Manchester University… Edmonton County Grammar School… Shoreditch Secondary School… Queen Mary’s Hospital School.”

The Etonians never went away, of course – Mr Moore himself is one – and an account of political life today would find the Eton-and-Christ-Church strain at the forefront of the Government, once more. But for a moment, from the late 1970s to the 1990s, meritocracy seemed to be working, and a change taking place in almost every corner of public life, witnessed, almost incidentally, in the footnotes. How interesting it would be if all books about politics followed this lucid principle.

Twitter: @PhilipHensher