Christina Patterson: Is there room for art in the Big Society?

There isn't much philanthropy in Britain. Where it does exist in relation to the arts, it's largely about influence and image - in other words, the glamorous and hip
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On Monday, it was the Big Society. Yesterday, it was the biggest moment in his whole life (apart, perhaps, from that meeting with the Queen when she asked him to do what he'd always planned to do anyway), the one when he got to star in the real-life version of The West Wing. And tonight, dinner with the Mayor of New York. A bit of a come-down after the back-slapping with Barack, but anything to get away from all that whining about cuts. Because, really, it's all getting rather boring.

The trouble is, you tell people that we're all in this together and they say they understand, but then when they realise that "all" means them, they seem to rather lose it. To be honest, you slightly wonder about their intelligence. You can understand that schools are a bit of a nightmare (in fact you're worried sick your children will end up like those nutters on that Raoul Moat website) but the arts? For God's sake, we're not talking about cancer wards, or maternity units, or even GPs, though they cost a bloody fortune, we're talking about Cosi Fan Tutte and Caravaggio and contemporary dance. All delightful, of course, but hardly front-line services.

If David Cameron was torn between laughter and tears after pleas last week from the arts world for him to be gentle, I was almost tempted to join him. (I was reminded, in fact, of a march during my first job in publishing, when a group of Camillas, Emmas and, no doubt, Christinas, paraded around Bloomsbury with placards, chanting, in polite, impeccably enunciated tones, "What do we want? Union rights. When do we want them? Now!") Don't these people know there's a crisis? That people are about to lose their jobs and their homes and their university places and their disability benefit and their school buildings and, indeed, their guarantee of cancer tests within a fortnight? And they're wittering on about opera and theatre and dance!

For the past 13 years, they've been drowning in dosh. In 1997, when a wannabe rock star got to invite a real one to Downing Street, the annual grant to the Arts Council was £186m. By the end of the party, two and a half months ago, it was £445m. In that time, the grant to the National Theatre increased by nearly 80 per cent, the grant to the Royal Shakespeare Company by 89 per cent, to the South Bank Centre by nearly 60 per cent, and to the Serpentine by a whopping 243 per cent. Last year alone, the Tates gobbled up £57m in public funds. In 2001, museums and galleries were thrown open to every Tom, Dick and Gary. At the wave of a hand (and a cost of about £40m a year) they were free as the air.

The arts really had never had it so good. And if these mollycoddled darlings of the media couldn't find a few savings in what could only, after all, be called a luxury item, then surely philanthropists could fill the gap? They love all that stuff, don't they? All those extensions named after them, all those boxes at the opera? It would, in fact, be a splendid opportunity to make things more like America. You can pretty much forget state funding for the arts in America. But it doesn't matter because rich men step into the breach.

This, it seems, was Cameron's hope. The hitch, alas, is that rich men are proving a little reluctant. In my (admittedly rather limited) experience of them, it's less of a challenge to get one to pass through the eye of a needle than persuade him to open his wallet. The rich haggle over every financial transaction as if each is a battle they must win. They don't get rich because they want to cure cancer, fund dance companies or support theories about "trickle-down". They get rich because they're really very keen on money, and really very keen on keeping it. Philanthropy in Victorian times was part of a world-view that included religious faith, one in which your access to the after-life might well be eased along by a little short-term investment. In America, 76 per cent of the population still declare themselves Christians. No wonder philanthropy still thrives there. And if you get your name on a concert hall, so much the better.

There isn't much of a tradition of philanthropy in contemporary Britain. Where it does exist in relation to the arts, it's largely about influence and image. It's largely, in other words, about the glamorous and the hip, the Royal Opera Houses and the Tate Moderns. It's less likely to be about the tiny arts organisation at the back of a library which organises poetry readings for pensioners, or the dance project for disaffected teenagers, or replacing the lighting rig at the local theatre. Even the rich guys who are happy to call themselves arts philanthropists, a species now almost as rare as Brown loyalists, have acknowledged this, by writing to the Prime Minister, and telling him, in effect, to dream on.

I don't doubt that a vigilant axe-man would sniff out pockets of waste in the arts. The whole tick-box culture, for example, was time-consuming and ridiculous. When I ran an arts organisation 10 years ago, I used to curse the forms that forced you to make wild guesses about your audience members' sexual orientation or secret disabilities. Sometimes, I was tempted to whip out a Dulux chart and be done with it. I don't doubt that some arts organisations do bits of work that overlap with each other. But I think it's unlikely that close scrutiny by Capita, or one of the other management consultancies currently bossing around the public sector, would throw up much in the way of major inefficiency. And I think it's extremely unlikely that the Capita employees would do the work, as most of my colleagues did, for 18 grand a year.

Arts funding is a complicated, and hair-raising, business. The funding from the taxpayer is usually less than a third of the total picture, which is a balancing act of earned revenue, commercial offshoots, and money raised by foundations and trusts. If there are fat pensions, or redundancy deals, they're usually those of the funders. Many arts organisations don't know if they'll survive from one year to the next.

The arts, as those arts leaders pointed out last week, raise at least £2 for every £1 invested. They're mentioned by eight out of 10 tourists as a reason for their visit. They are, in relation to most areas of state spending, very good value indeed. But the real fruits of arts funding are impossible to measure. They're not about education, though they can be. They're not about communication, though they can be. They're not about empathy, though they can be. And they're certainly not about markets, though sometimes, if the sums add up, they can be.

"Give me a loaf", says an old Chinese proverb, "so that I may live, and give me a flower that I may have a reason to live". It would be hard to argue that the arts should escape the mass culling that every public service (with the peculiar exception of that bottomless pit known as the NHS) has been told to expect, but it would also be hard to see the most unequivocal success story of the last 13 years destroyed. Markets won't bring it back to life. Nor will philanthropists. Without consistent state funding at a realistic level, this flower will wither and die.

David Cameron's knitting circles, and women's institutes, and "community-minded" volunteers may fancy running the National Theatre, or writing plays for it, or knocking off the odd libretto. But art isn't a hobby, it's, you know, an art – created and presented by people who know what they're doing, people, I'm afraid, who need to be paid. The people who make this stuff happen are called arts administrators. The other word for them is bureaucrats. And we all know what the Big Society thinks of them.