Arts funding: let the public vote with their cash

The Royal Opera House (ROH) in London recently got into trouble with some of its audience for sending out begging letters asking for money to subsidise costumes and scenery in its forthcoming Wagner productions.

Apparently, people have complained that, as ROH already receives £26million from the government to subsidise its operations (the largest beneficiary of state subsidy in the arts), and charges high ticket prices, it should work within its limits. However, I think arts organisations will benefit if they become less dependent on government subsidy and more reliant on people who are passionate about the art form in question.

Art is an expensive, even extravagant, business and government subsidies are not only shrinking but are increasingly bound by conditions that often have little to do with the development of the art form. Arts funding is a complicated area, especially because many arts are a matter of individual preference and not necessarily popular with a large number of people. Government subsidises art broadly ‘for the good of society’ (though what this means needs a lot more debate than it gets). This approach provides a more secure basis for the development of some art forms, but the process is extremely bureaucratic and prescriptive.

Alternatively, a direct appeal to the public for money can cut through the bureaucratic red tape and bring in money for works of art that the public clearly value – why else would they cough up more of their own hard-earned cash? Arguably, organisations with the public clout of the Royal Opera House could gain a lot of money from their supporters.

There is something unhealthy about many arts organisations’ dependency on government subsidy. It forces them to jump through bureaucratic hoops which have little to do with the art form or, often, what the public really want. The biggest condition for attaining arts funding is public engagement. But, of course, what better way for an institution to engage with their public than asking them, directly, to help finance their future. This way, arts organisations would be truly engaging and debating with the public, rather than merely adhering to the patronising maxim of arts funding: give them what they want.

Wendy Earle is convenor of the Institute of Ideas Arts and Society Forum.

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