Time to end UK art’s dependency culture

State funding of the arts does not help creativity; it suffocates it with policymaking imperatives.

Denis Joe

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Maria Miller took up her post as secretary of state for culture, media and sport last September. After the distraction of the Leveson Inquiry, she has finally got round to discussing the ‘culture‘ bit of her brief.

Her speech, ‘Testing times: fighting culture’s corner in an age of austerity’, delivered at the British Museum last week, was brimful with ministerial cliche: the arts are ‘educational’, ‘socially beneficial’, ‘good for trade’, and so on. But the central tenet of Miller’s speech was that art can be profitable. Miller went on to list recent success stories such as the Olympics and Liverpool’s year as Capital of Culture in 2008, highlighting how much money those events brought into the cities.

But here’s the thing: pouring money into the arts has little impact on broader society. It does, however, have a negative impact on the arts themselves.

In the case of Liverpool, there was a spectacular increase in revenue during 2008, but five years on very little has changed. As a report from Liverpool Hope University noted recently, ‘since being announced as the 2008 Capital of Culture, the urban-regeneration focus has… shifted toward the city centre and away from the city’s marginalised communities… Liverpool still contains some of the most disadvantaged areas in the UK and is the UK’s most deprived local authority.’

The people of Liverpool do not seem to have been any more inspired by Capital of Culture year either. The Royal Court Theatre continues with its endless cycle of ‘taking the piss out of Scousers’ shows. Operas at the Empire still play to a third of the venue’s capacity, unless it’s Puccini or Verdi’s better-known works. Audiences for poetry events continue to attract only poets. The only people who still talk about 2008 are councillors.

The development of the Mersey Docks and the Liverpool-Manchester canal are the sorts of projects that have a real economic value: they provide jobs and they improve transport infrastructure. Art is useless. The only value it has is that which we impose on it.

Events such as Capital of Culture or the Edinburgh Festival might bring in revenue through ticket sales and local business. But that is not why they happen. As Tiffany Jenkins pointed out recently, people go to art events because ‘they love it, enjoy it and are driven to participate in something meaningful’.

Yet the arts sector has very little argument against Miller’s reduction of the arts to hard cash. For decades, arts bodies have produced endless impact reports, all trumpeting the economic value of each pound invested in the arts. The sector has even embraced the label bestowed on it by New Labour culture secretary, Chris Smith: ‘the creative industries’.

Unfortunately, the state’s funding criteria are anathema to artistic integrity. When the state patronises the arts, art becomes a policy tool and public expenditure has to be justified.

It wasn’t always this way. The Arts Council was born out of the initiative of musicians and artists who, during the Second World War, organised free concerts and exhibitions that proved popular with the war-weary public. A year later, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) was established, and control was taken away from the artists. CEMA was renamed the Arts Council of Great Britain (ACGB) with a royal charter granted in 1946.

Arts Council funding was extended under Harold Wilson’s government (1964-1970). Under then arts minister, Jennie Lee, Arts Council expenditure increased by almost 500 per cent in real terms. The same belief drove policy then as drives it today: namely, that art delivers social benefits. Or as Lord Goodman put it: ‘A dose of culture could turn hooligans into citizens.’

By 1987, the then Conservative arts minister Richard Luce was opining: ‘There are still too many in the arts world who are yet to be weaned from the welfare-state mentality.’ He had a point. Artists and organisations have come to view Arts Council funding as their rightful means of survival. Is art’s dependency culture a good thing?

Some commentators have recently suggested that the Lib-Con government wants to abolish arts’ funding altogether, leave artists at the mercy of a patronage system. Though that is not going to happen, it might not be a bad thing if it did.

The US patronage system has been as successful, if not more so, than the European system of art subsidies. Over the past decade, public and private sources have accounted for roughly 56 per cent of total funding of US non-profit arts organisations. The remainder has come from box-office receipts.

What is especially notable is the quality of work that has resulted from the patronage system. In every field of art during the twentieth century, the USA has excelled in producing innovative and challenging work. Artists such as Pollock, De Kooning and Rothko; writers such as Mailer, Vonnegut Jr and Updike; poets such as William Carlos Williams, Ginsberg and Merwin; composers such as Elliot Carter, Henry Cowell and John Adams; not to mention developments in theatre and cinema. All these have impacted enormously and beneficially on the world of art.

In the UK, however, such an approach is viewed with suspicion. When David Pountney, head of the Welsh National Opera (WNO), accepted a $2million donation from the Getty Foundation last year, commentator Norman Lebrecht suggested it was a bribe to include a Gordon Getty opera in the company’s 2013/14 season. But that $2million means the WNO will produce the most exciting seasons of any British opera company this year.

In general, donors do not see the arts as an investment and are not looking for a return on their money. Perhaps it is time to wrest control of the arts back from the state and to tell the Arts Council and the DCMS to stick its funding – and the attached strings – up their arts.

Denis Joe is a poet. He writes regularly for the Manchester Salon.

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