Thursday, January 10, 2008

Arts Funding

Iain Dale asks why the Arts Council is cutting funding from rural services, and relates a particular example. This isn't an isolated incident: many of my friends are excised about the cuts to the National Student Drama Festival (NSDF) funding.
The Arts Council’s unexpected decision to cut their support after 14 years for the 53 year old National Student Drama Festival has immediately put at risk the annual festival, scheduled to take place in 3 months time. Arts Council Yorkshire has made no criticism of NSDF. It’s reasons for cutting the annual £52,000 grant is that it has decided to “refocus our investment”. It wishes to support: “the strongest, highest quality building-based producing theatres…the most dynamic and innovative touring companies…venues that support the changing nature of theatre.” It says it is looking to fund “a portfolio of strong, effective organisations that help to deliver increased attendance and participation in high quality arts.”

This is what the National Student Drama Festival has been doing and will continue to do.

I have never been to NSDF but I have been involved with a number of shows that have, and with a number of people who have worked there. I have seen the huge amount of time, money and effort our selected shows put in to raise the money to be able to attend.

Everyone in our shows worked for nothing and many of them helped out other shows, or the main NSDF team for nothing. One or two said they saw some good stuff, but the majority seemed to feel... well... "meh."

I am sure that the NSDF is a valuable institution: it has been going for 53 years, after all.

Which rather begs the question: since the Arts Council has only been funding them for the last 14 years, what did they do before that?

I have a bit of a conflict in this area, I must admit; whilst I don't believe that the state—or, rather (and this can never be repeated enough), the taxpayer—should not fund the arts, I do enjoy watching theatre. It has an immediacy that television or film simply cannot match.

On the other hand, I do understand that just because I like theatre, that is no reason why it should be subsidised by those who do not want to watch it and who can barely afford to make ends meet anyway. In fact, all of the arguments against funding the current funding of the BBC also apply to other arts.

This has been preying on my mind as, on Sunday night, I was having an argument about this with someone who works in theatre professionally. She maintained that much of the quality theatre simply wouldn't happen without government grants, that you would be left only with the big West End Theatres and everything else would die.

I'm not sure that this is the case; theatre existed before the state started funding it. Indeed, the biggest arts festival in the world, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, started without any funding at all.

Any ideas one way or the other, especially from anyone in the industry, happily received in the comments.

UPDATE: Timmy highlights a story on a similar theme.
Arts Council England (Ace) was plunged into a crisis when 500 of the country’s top actors passed an unprecedented vote of no confidence in the organisation over cuts it is making in grants to almost 200 theatres and music companies.

The supplicants for your and my money are hardly going to cheer when the swill trough is removed now, are they?
Mr Hewitt was told by Sam West, Alison Steadman and Caroline Quentin that hitting regional and London fringe theatres would have a damaging knock-on effect that would lead to the whole of British theatre being "starved" of plays, directors and actors.

Snigger. Cue Dr. Strangelove and the mines gap. One thing the UK is never going to have a shortage of is luvvies.

Let’s get this straight shall we? There shouldn’t be any taxpayer subsidy for the arts. You like it, you love it, great, get out there and do it. If you’re not good enough to draw a large enough paying crowd to make money out of it then you’re going to have to do it for free. There’s really no reason to tax the dustman and the nurse for this indoor relief for that part of the population that likes to show off.

Indeed. Although, I have to point out that under my benign (but dictatorial) regime, there would have been such massive tax cuts that, although theatre prices would go up with no state funding, anyone who really wanted to go would have enough money in their back pocket for it to be easily affordable.

But, essentially, the arts sector—in common with just about every other section of the population in this country—is going to have to get used not to being propped up by the state.


anthonynorth said...

I've never worked in theatre but, apart from the big productions, I get the impression that theatre people turn up their nose at enterprise.
Which is all very well, but I think the smaller organisations would benefit by using the services of more entrepreneurs. What can be done with theatres to raise money other than their productions? PR could surely be better.
This aside, maybe they should get more into the community at large - show that they are part of it, not divorced from it.

Shug Niggurath said...

At all levels, the Arts establishment wants patronage. Problem being is that they've gotten over-used to patronage by the state.

Look at the number of tax-breaks the movie industry want before they'll consider making a big budget production.

So while I understand the need for the lower level to find money from somewhere, I don't see why that money should be mine.

Part of the insiduous problem of this is that when the state sets up bodies such as the Arts Council, it effectively cuts the visible tie between my money and funding. People are disconnected from the fact that the reason they pay so much in taxes is to support all manner of uneconomical projects, not all of which they would choose to pay towards if they were charitable organisations.

I'd argue that if people are willing to pay the kind of prices that are now common for fairly unknown bands in a concert venue, then plays will simply have to get better, more gripping and stop peddling student politics dressed up as serious drama. If your art is shite, then the market will find you out well enough.

James Higham said...

The closest I can get to this is the article on the Scottish Arts Council. There is the argument yea or nay funding [Pollard had much to say on that] and then there is the government agenda vis a vis the arts, using grants as a tool for the good boys and girls who play ball.

The Sage of Muswell Hill said...

There's £3.5 billion per year going into the BBC. Maybe some of this tax, if left in the pockets of the licence fee payer, might find its way directly into the Arts. Not, you understand, the "Arts" the Arts Council or its luvvy pensioners/dependants might wish to see supported, but the "Arts" people are prepared to pay for with their own money.

Anonymous said...

Umbongo makes a good point.

But what it boils down to is, it is not the government's business, nor, by extension, my business to support an industry that cannot support itself.

The arts just are not a special case. I don't want taxpayer money used to bail out Northern Rock and nor should it be used to bail out plays, concerts and art shows that cannot find private backers and/or a paying audience.

Arts Council England (Ace) was plunged into a crisis when 500 of the country’s top actors passed an unprecedented vote of no confidence in the organisation over cuts it is making in grants to almost 200 theatres and music companies.


Take another "creative" area - clothes and shoe designers. They prosper or fail by how much the public wants to wear their creations.

And who are all these people making decisions about what is worthy of subsidy? That's an industry in itself.

I'm with DK. Cut taxes to 10% across the board and people could choose what to do with their disposable income. But susidies for the arts are outrageous.

Machiavelli's Understudy said...

Maybe some of this tax, if left in the pockets of the licence fee payer, might find its way directly into the Arts

Errr... It does. Surely you've heard of the (very popular) BBC orchestras?

Anonymous said...

I play in band currently enjoying the thrills of London's indie scene. None of the promoters I've worked with get any sort of funding, but there are a wealth of nights dedicated to putting on shows to good-sizes audience. The rubbish nights quickly fold, while the decent ones accumulate an audience which pays for tickets. There's no big pot of government cash, people do it for free and it's thriving.

On the other hand, when I was involved with Arts Council-funded projects in Nottingham (specifically some live art events organisation I was seconded to do by my employer), the whole thing was paid for by government bodies. As a result, it was complacent and dull, and afforded talentless fuckwits the opportunity to cunt about without having to worry about building an audience: all they had to do was perform, which justified the funding bodies existence as they then had somethign to fund. Nice work if you can get it, but stale as you like...

I know this is annecdotal, but the difference between the two different ways of putting on cultural events couldn't be more pronounced in my experience.

Mr Eugenides said...

I tend to think that the Arts should not get state money - but given that the amounts are so small, it doesn't bother me at all that they do.

Put it this way; normally in times of fiscal squeeze, the arts are the first part of the budget to feel the pinch. But if you saved a few billion here and there I don't see how a couple of million to a Philharmonic could hurt.

Better than giving it to Peter Hain to spend.

Folded at Dawn said...

There are cuts in funding for everything, Mr Kitchen. Literally everything. My local council has no money. There will be £17m to fund road improvements for SE England for the next 3 years (there's a separate budget for road repairs). £17m? That's the cost of one bypass for one town, to cover 7 million people. Budget cuts. They're everywhere.

Except in one key area, of course. MPs seem flusher than ever.

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