Cutting edge: radical arts funding

Britain's creative output is hugely imaginative. But when it comes to funding, the arts world is one of the most conservative industries in the country. David Lister, arts editor, argues that reducing budgets could radicalise culture

Tuesday 24 August 2010 00:00

Last week at the Edinburgh Festival the associate director of the National Theatre of Scotland addressed young directors on the Fringe in a speech calling for new and experimental ways of presenting plays in new spaces. "There is an opportunity from the cuts to revolutionise what theatre is," he said.

John Tiffany, who directed the acclaimed production of Black Watch, about British soldiers in Iraq, is a respected figure in the arts, but you won't see his view that the cuts provide an artistic "opportunity" reflected in any press release from a leading arts organisation. You won't hear it repeated in any of the several gatherings of the cultural great and good which are meeting both publicly and privately at the moment to plan an anti-cuts strategy. You won't read it in the rash of articles from actors, singers, artists or administrators.

The Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has asked arts bodies to prepare models of cuts up to 30 per cent. Already one quango, the UK Film Council has been told it will be axed, sparking protest not just at home, but from luminaries such as Clint Eastwood abroad. When the arts world wishes to lobby, it has no shortage of famous names in its address book.

Right now there is a lot of lobbying going on, from newspaper articles by glamorous actors to private meetings between arts leaders and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The arts world is in the biggest state of panic I have ever seen. Not without reason. A 30 per cent cut will transform the way that the arts are delivered in this country. There will be casualties around Britain and cuts in high-profile organisations. I suspect that the Government will want to avoid any charges of elitism and will want the top of the pile, the Royal Opera House say, to feel the pain as much as a small theatre company in the shires.

What one is not hearing, apart from that brief mention in Edinburgh, is the notion that the cuts, however savage, could also present an opportunity. Instead there is a refusal to accept that the current model of public funding may not actually be the only reasonable and civilised one, or that the present reliance on largely unaccountable quangos to fund and administer most arts bodies, small and large, is not necessarily a democratic one, even though it would be pilloried in novels, plays and films if it existed in any other walk of life.

That is the huge irony of the way the arts are paid for and run in Britain. On stage and screen there is a constant message of imagination, radicalism and challenge to the status quo. But in the way it runs itself, the arts world is one of the most unimaginative and conservative industries in Britain.

Much has been made in recent weeks of the damage that will be done to the nation's culture if public funds are cut. But, inconvenient as it may be, should we not then be asking how such institutions as the Glyndebourne Opera Festival and the Royal Academy manage to exist on no public funding at all? These are smaller institutions, of course, but the Royal Academy mounts lavish blockbusters, sometimes every bit as stunning as those of the publicly funded Tate and National Gallery and Glyndebourne's productions can be every bit as stunning as the Royal Opera's. How does it do it – and keep an expensive building going in Piccadilly – without a penny of public funding? Shouldn't the arts world that can rouse itself to lobby against a threat of cuts, also rouse itself to study the way the country's most successful private arts institutions make contacts, find sponsorship, run membership schemes (the RA's Friends scheme brings in £6m a year) and generally raise money and make a profit? Does Clint Eastwood not have a view on this?

And it's not just private organisations that can share their wisdom. Julia Fawcett, chief executive of the Lowry Centre in Salford, turned down an offer of increased public funding to cut a deficit. Instead she developed commercial activities, running a conferencing business at the centre and selling tickets for cultural events across the country at her box office, and turned a loss-making arts institution around. Public funding is not a universal panacea.

There are other opportunities to be grasped – both by the arts world and by government. One could, for example, rather than just cutting funding by a set percentage, re-examine the whole way that the arts are funded. Most arts companies in England are funded by the Arts Council, a quango which decides on how to distribute millions of pounds without a single one of its meetings being open to the public or public scrutiny. Question after question in the House of Commons to the arts minister receive the response: "That is a matter for the Arts Council." It is not the most democratic way to proceed. Again, one can imagine what merriment would be had on stage and screen and in contemporary novels if any other walk of life practised such a lack of accountability. The much-cherished "arm's length principle" by which the Government department responsible for the arts does not actually run the arts may well have run its course. Democracy is also held at arms length. Again, is this major review of arts funding not a time to at least discuss this?

The UK Film Council, recently axed by the Government, is one of these quangos, and it has a good track record of putting money into successful films. But it has to be said that Britain does not yet compare with France in producing a recognisably indigenous style of film which examines the British psyche, especially what one might term the middle-class psyche which British film-makers generally run a mile from making films about. Nor is there any effort from government to promote British film with tax breaks comparable to Ireland or with guaranteed screening of British films in multiplexes, though this was indeed discussed, but not acted upon, by New Labour in its first years of government. Nor has the present Government said who will take over the Film Council's duties. That is particularly inept. But it is the case that, as Mr Hunt said, eight of the Film Council's senior executives earn more than £100,000. It is not alone among arts quangos in having high-earning bosses. The head of English Heritage received £193,000, the head of the Arts Council more than £170,000 though the Arts Council does distribute £453m of government money to the arts each year. A handful of other arts quangos have high-earning chief executives.

Jeremy Hunt is perhaps not helped by a degree of obfuscation in his own department (the DCMS does not even list the Film Council's high-profile chairman Tim Bevan as chairman. It still lists his predecessor). Among quangos it muddies the water to an absurd degree by including such bodies as the Tate and British Museum. When Mr Hunt referred publicly a couple of weeks ago to funding "an extraordinary 55 quangos, the vast majority with highly paid bosses and costly bureaucracy", this nonsensical statement would have included the Tate, the British Museum, the Imperial War Museum and other famous arts institutions. The Culture Secretary would do well to sort out the remaining Yes Minister slices of bureaucracy in his own department and separate world-renowned museums from the few genuine arts quangos both in his own mind and in his public pronouncements.

Better still, he and the arts world can use this moment of funding reform as an opportunity to examine how the arts are run. He could look at our national companies and ask why most of them do so little touring. The Royal Ballet and English National Opera do not tour in the UK at all. He could ask if London actually needs four symphony orchestras (as well as the BBC orchestras which also play in London), while many regions do not have any. He could ask whether every arts company's education department is essential. With Shakespeare's Globe, Tate Modern and the Young Vic within walking distance of one another, the children of Southwark and Lambeth must receive more arts education than any other boroughs in the country.

Dangerous questions perhaps, but surely the arts world is big enough and confident enough to ask itself such questions as it wrestles with the new age of austerity. Can our leading arts institutions say with their hands on their hearts that there is no waste? Can they deny that, even with large in-house departments, they contract out many publicity, lobbying and other functions at substantial cost?

And let's return to that little-noticed speech in Edinburgh about making theatre more revolutionary. Again every government in opposition talks about encouraging new audiences by having cheap ticket nights for young people. If Mr Hunt completes a reform of arts funding while turning a blind eye to the price of seats and the iniquity of booking fees, handling charges and the like, he will have done little for audiences. The fact that much of the arts world turns a blind eye to these charges which so infuriate audiences does not mean the Government should.

Mr Hunt could also use this most important year for the arts to realise himself and make it more publicly known that television is potentially the biggest provider of culture in Britain. As TV is among his departmental responsibilities he could take more of a lead there and insist that television, not least the BBC, broadcasts some classic drama, something that has been largely absent from the screen for decades. More of our arts institutions could share expertise and costs with television.

I could suggest more changes, radical changes that would not just save money but could safeguard artistic provision through imaginative funding models. This paper campaigned for free admission to our national museums and galleries. And it is something one would hate to see go, even in an age of austerity. But the free admission was meant to help British gallery-goers not tourists. Why not have a hotel tax (a bed tax as it is known in some other countries) with the proceeds going to the arts, perhaps to those very galleries, so that tourists in some way do contribute to the institutions they are able to make free use of, and at the same time ease the burden on the exchequer? Such ideas do not seem to be discussed at all in government or in the arts.

In short, Mr Hunt could use this seminal moment in the arts to have a coordinated plan for the arts. He could ensure that a hefty percentage cut in arts funding, frightening as it initially seems, brings with it an opportunity if only government and arts bodies will work together to re-examine what they do and how best to improve the culture of the nation.

I am in full agreement with many of the raised voices that this nation's culture is its pride and glory, that one of the things on which a civilisation is judged is the cultural legacy it leaves, that we are certainly at present living in something of a golden age and that to risk destroying it would be not just foolish but criminal. This cannot be shouted too loudly.

But I do not necessarily agree that a diminution in financial assistance from the public purse will destroy it. Nor am I convinced that all the present models of funding and arts administration are the correct ones. If the inevitable cut in public money going to the arts brings with it a new energy to find different models of funding, a new accountability, a new reaching out to the regions and a Government-led change in attitudes to audiences, then cuts can be turned to culture's advantage.

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