Why is free admission to art galleries and museums sacrosanct, when free swimming is not?

Even in a time of straitened national finances, it never pays to underestimate the awesome power of the arts lobby in Britain

Share

What do you imagine would be an easier subsidy to defend at a time of straitened national finances – free swimming in public baths for children and pensioners; or free entry for all into metropolitan museums of fine art? If I didn’t know otherwise, I would have guessed the former. This, however, would be to underestimate the awesome power of the arts lobby in Britain.

Free use of public swimming baths for pensioners and children was abolished by the Coalition as one of its first acts of fiscal rectitude. There was no organised lobby to defend this subsidy, which had previously been justified as in the interests of public health.

Yet last week, when it was revealed that the banking heir Sir Denis Mahon had stipulated that the pieces in his £100m collection of Italian Baroque art could remain where they were in public galleries just so long as there were never any charges at those institutions, it seemed universally accepted that the great collector was speaking for all of us. Can it really be such an unchallengeable political principle that our leading metropolitan museums, sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), should not charge? Why is free swimming around the corner from children in Bolton or Plymouth self-evidently an extravagance, while free museums around the corner from the residents of Knightsbridge a sacred subsidy that cannot even be questioned?

More precisely, what is so unique about fine art that it is thus sanctified by eternal subsidy? We don’t offer, via the taxpayer, free seats at concerts of classical music or at the theatre; yet any arguments about the uplifting properties of Italian Baroque art could be equally applied to the music of Mozart or the plays of Shakespeare.

John Carey some years ago took on this general proposition with his bracing book What Good Are The Arts? Carey observed there had never been a government more determined on public subsidy of high arts than the one led by a would-be painter called Adolf Hitler; his wider point was that appreciation of art does not in any way act as a check on the worst in human nature. The fact that the Third Reich believed in enormous subsidies for high culture is, obviously, no reflection on our own arts lobby. Nor is the fact that China is the only other significant nation to offer free museum entrance a proof there are Communist tendencies within our own dear Coalition. But what all of them have in common is the belief that it is worth subsidising the pursuits of the elite in order to persuade the masses to embrace the same pleasures. So although over 40 per cent of those who take advantage of this subsidy are foreign tourists (and in the case of the British Museum about 60 per cent), the ostensible political argument is that free access is the only way to bring in the most disadvantaged of the indigenous population.

The figures, however, show that if this is indeed the purpose, it is a decreasingly well-directed policy. From representing over 9 per cent of the DCMS-sponsored galleries and museum audience in 2008-9, visits from adults in the lower socioeconomic groups fell to just 7.4 per cent of the total in 2011-2012. Yet over the same period, the overseas audience rose from 34.5 per cent to 42 per cent.

Michael Dixon, the chairman of the National History Museum, argues that while the free admissions policy “costs approximately £45m a year to implement” an extra “£315m” is generated through additional revenues by tourists – presumably, in the Tate, by buying prints and suchlike in one of the gallery’s seven shopping areas. Yet if free entry is such a business no-brainer, we might wonder why this cannot be sponsored by private corporate donors, who at the moment are used only to finance the “special” shows for which these DCMS-financed institutions actually do charge. This is the model of the Saatchi Gallery (declaration of interest – the proprietor is this columnist’s brother-in-law). It has no entry charge and the cost of this policy is borne by firms seeking a pleasant association with art, not the taxpayer. But why should galleries paid by the taxpayer for such “generosity” bother to find the money themselves? This point will doubtless have occurred to the new Arts Council chief Sir Peter Bazalgette, who says that “subsidy sounds like a European wine lake”.

Dixon’s claim came in direct response to a rare dissident voice, the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, Tristram Hunt. His constituency contains the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, which, while having “a ceramics collection second only to the V&A”, has no state subsidy guaranteeing free admission. Hunt complained bitterly that this amounted to unfair competition: “This metropolitan club-class government has made sure that our global cultural icons are immune from the pressures hitting their regional colleagues.”

Oddly enough, I suspect the Conservatives feel that free gallery entrance – even concentrated on salubrious Kensington and Bloomsbury – is a way of demonstrating that it is not a party of toffs looking after its own interests. This is one explanation of its panic six years ago when its then shadow secretary of state for culture, Hugo Swire, argued in a newspaper interview that the DCMS-sponsored museums and galleries should be allowed to charge, if they wished: “They could use the money to make their facilities even better and could have special arrangements allowing continued free access for children [and] students.” Swire was immediately forced by Tory high command to recant this unobjectionable suggestion and fired from the job soon after. The immensely well-connected and media-savvy arts mafia must have been quietly satisfied.

The subsidy of universal free access (not just for children or students) to our grandest metropolitan galleries might also be seen as an example of long-standing Whitehall bias. Fans of the original Yes Minister might recall the episode entitled “The Middle-Class Rip-Off”, in which Sir Humphrey Appleby attempted to educate his young colleague Bernard, when the more junior civil servant questioned the extent of the state’s subsidy of fine art. ‘Sir Humphrey (calmly): Bernard, subsidy is for art, for culture. (Almost furiously) It is not to be given to what the people want! It is for what the people don’t want but ought to have!”

In fact, Sir Humphrey really did enjoy nothing more than an evening at the Opera House: he was a genuine (if fictional) highbrow. I suspect the current occupants of the Media and Culture ministry, politicians or otherwise, would not know one end of Guercino’s “The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple” from the other. They only know it sounds good to say it’s “free” – as if none of us will be paying for its upkeep in perpetuity.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Political Editor: With 100 days still to go how will Cameron, Miliband and Co. keep us all engaged?

Andrew Grice
A solar energy farm in France  

Nature Studies: For all the attractions of solar power, it shouldn’t blight the countryside

Michael McCarthy
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea