Forget the Arts Council - bring back the patron

Creative professionals struggling to make ends meet should flow with the cultural tide and go private

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The Independent Online

Simon Raven’s novel The Rich Pay Late (1964), in which the depravity of the Eden-era establishment is laid bare as with a scalpel, contains a memorable scene in which a crooked adman named Jude Holbrook attempts to buy the proprietorship of an influential weekly magazine called Strix. His conduit is the eminently corruptible editor, Somerset Lloyd-James, allegedly based on Raven’s much more saintly school contemporary William Rees-Mogg, later custodian of The Times. But Holbrook’s initial come-on merits only a shake of the head. “You must not make the businessman’s vulgar mistake” Lloyd-James loftily informs him, “of assuming that distinguished cultural services come cheap.”

No they don’t, and no they never have done. But the suspicion that they may, in the future, come very cheap indeed to the point of being distributed gratis was reinforced by last week’s revelation that stand-up comedians are begging the Arts Council to reverse its de facto ban on supporting comedy in the same way that it subsidises other art forms. In fact, Adam Dahrouge and Ofer Yatziv, producers of the London Sketch Comedy Festival, have gone so far as to write to Darren Henley, the council’s chief executive, demanding direct funding for a percentage of the nation’s gagsters and arguing that there exists “a misunderstanding of comedy at an institutional level”.

The problem, according to messrs Dahrouge and Yatziv, is that age-old difficulty of nurturing up-and-coming talent. As in nearly every branch of the arts celebrity sells, and while successes such as Michael McIntyre and Jimmy Carr can fill every amphitheatre in the country, Mr Henley, according to his detractors, seems “unaware of the grassroots festivals, local comedy venues and emerging comedians… who may need to rely on arts funding to progress their development”. In response an Arts Council spokeswoman has remarked that “the main reason we don’t fund comedy directly is that it tends to be commercially self-sustaining”, and although they would “never say never”, the organisation is not looking at reclassifying art forms “in the near future”.

My own experience of dealing with government-sponsored arts bodies leads me to advise Mr Dahrouge and Mr Yatziv that this is a polite way of saying “Naff off”. At the same time, it is possible to sympathise profoundly with their, or rather their talent pool’s plight. After all, given the range of highly questionable uses to which government money is put, why shouldn’t someone whose ambition is to tell jokes for a living benefit from public funding while the first steps to the securing of that living are being made?

I am aware that this is not a popular view, and that there are large sections of the community ready to quake in their galoshes if public money is spent on practically anything other than the National Health Service or some new motorway extension booked to shave 20 minutes off the harassed businessman’s commute. Judging from last Wednesday’s Daily Express, Richard Desmond seems to think it an outrage that the BBC is filming an edition of Songs of Praise at the Calais migrants’ camp. You may think, alternatively, that this is one of the reasons the licence fee is worth paying and that Mr Desmond brings a new dimension to the words “public disgrace”, but, as I say, we have just elected a government determined to lessen the pull of Leviathan and are contemplating a squeeze on public finances in which the question of money for the arts, that trumpery and self-deluding little exhibitionists’ ghetto, is plainly the smallest of small beer.

None of this, though, answers the question indirectly raised by the Dahrouge/Yatziv letter, which is this: who, if these tendencies continue, is going to pay for the arts? Who, in other words, in an environment characterised by declining incomes and the tendency of the public to want things for free, is going to remunerate a series of professions ranging from musician to writer and actor to film-maker where livings are harder to make from one year to the next? Ballet and opera, we know, exist almost entirely at the discretion of the state, but take my own profession of light literature, where the most recent statistics issued by the Authors’ Licensing and Collection Service reveal that only 11 per cent of those calling themselves “professional authors” make their entire income out of it and that the median return is a bare £11,000 – £6,000 below what the Joseph Rowntree Trust bleakly defines as “the level considered to be a socially acceptable standard of living”.

And here again we are back in what might be called the Desmond-philistine-“what’s-wrong-with-a-tune -you-can-whistle?” territory. If all these writers and musicians and actors are finding it hard to make ends meet, this argument runs, then they should jolly well write the kind of books, compose the kind of songs and appear in the kind of films that the public is prepared to pay to read, listen to and watch rather than expect the bill to picked up by someone else. On the other hand, quite a lot of art takes time to make its presence felt, isn’t immediately accessible and burns its way slowly into the public consciousness. If one factor unites such disparate early 20th-century talents as James Joyce, T S Eliot and Ronald Firbank it is that they either self-published or benefited from private patrons. Curiously posterity seems to value them a great deal higher than, let us say, such inter-war best-sellers as Hugh Walpole and John Galsworthy whose books sold in countless thousands at the time but whose reputations have long since crumbled to dust.

So where are deserving artists to get their money? The £10.9m of government funding which the Arts Council picked up in the past tax-year isn’t nearly enough to go round. Besides, no writer, or musician or actor worth their salt wants to be an Arts Council lackey: the atmosphere is too stifling, the bureaucracy too pettifogging, the “freedom”, in many cases, all-too conditional. One can just imagine, for example, what would happen in the unlikely event that Mr Henley relented and began to distribute grants to deserving stand-ups: the forms that would have to be filled in, the earnest enquiries into the nature of the audience, the precise monitoring of the ethnic, gender and social status of those involved, the jargon-filled annual reports about “comedic outcomes”, leading (one assumes) to the surreal spectacle of the grant-awarding body, pencils in hand,  marking individual jokes out of 10.

No, much as it pains me to say it, what the artist needs in these cash-strapped and philistine times is a private patron who proceeds on the principle of sheer good will. I always had a soft spot for the US expatriate man-of-letters Logan Pearsall Smith, who in the 1920s employed the young Cyril Connolly, paying him a weekly salary whether he turned up or not and even going so far as to lend him money, and the late Lady Sainsbury who never complained about the well-nigh demonic portraits presented to her by her pensioner Francis Bacon. In their absence, I doff my cap in the direction of such long-term benefactors of the modern cultural scene as mesdames Drue Heinz and Sigrid Rausing, to whom the London Sketch Comedy Festival is urged to send a wad of free tickets. If the public and the state are failing us, then, my fellow artists, it is time to go private.

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