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State funding of the arts

Sunday 28 May 2006 17:45-18:30 (Radio 3)

Are the arts better off without subsidy?

Sixty year's after Maynard Keynes convinced a penniless British government to bankroll an opera house and an Art Council, the wheels are coming off the subsidy machine. There is a year-round Shakespeare house, The Globe that functions to full houses and rave reviews without a penny of public funding. There is entrepreneurial opera at Glyndebourne and the Royal Albert Hall, and a flowering of privately owned new concert halls. In the present climate, funding is tied to political imperatives of social equality, education and integration rather than creativity and artistic worth. Norman Lebrecht challenges leading figures in the arts and asks if it would be better to throw off the shackles of the State. With a panel including the chief executive of the Arts Council England, Peter Hewitt, artistic director of National Theatre of Scotland, Vicky Featherstone and the impresario, Raymond Gubbay.

Send your views, please to lebrecht.live@bbc.co.uk or call in from 1630 on Sunday on 08700 100 444

listen in to Radio 3 on Sunday May 28th at 1745 BST on www.bbc.co.uk/radio3


45 minutes

Your comments

Peter Hewitt is right about the Arts Council backing risk.

I am Chair of Complicite, one of the most adventurous theatre companies in the world. I have been chair for 15 years, and the company has been going making innovative theatre for 25 years - delighting audiences around Britain and the world.

None of this would have been possible without the long term and solid support for our risk taking from the Arts Council. We are well aware of the privilege this involves, and try to respond to the constructive interventions and periodic reviews they have done with us to ensure we are well run and meeting our objectives.

Roger Graef

The most wondrous, joyous, moving, transforming arts event ever to come to this country, the Sultan's Elephant by Royal de Luxe theatre company simply would not have happened without the courage and creativity and big vision of the Arts Council. It touched well over a million people and stimulated total strangers into dialogue. It has completely changed my view of the world and of the necessity of central funding for the arts

Judith Bell

Your discussion today took my eye at this particular time because I am a trustee of The Two Moors Festival, which is an annual music festival covering Exmoor and Dartmoor , and I am getting sucked into fundraising, which is really hard.
Summary of my point:
The Two Moors Festival was founded, and is run by Penny and John Adie who have given over their lives to this. The festival brings wonderful, international standard, music to the west country, but also provides a forum for our young talent to be discovered, trained and encouraged.
Funding is from the following sources:
1. ticket sales which provide just 25% of the income required and the concerts are always well supported (6000 tickets at last year's festival)
2. voluntary work
3. charities
4. the Arts Council
5. commerce
The last three items are very hard to come by and John spends most of his time securing funds. Sometimes I wonder how he doesn't despair but without state support the whole thing would simply not happen, and then we would all be the poorer for it. AND where would our musicians for Glyndbourne come from, and who would appreciate Glyndbourne's music if they never heard it locally?
More information:
The festival holds about 20 concerts in October and these are of the highest standards with performers such as Philicity Lott, Julias Drake, Julian Lloyd Weber and many more. I agreed to become a trustee because the work done by the festival covers a wide field and is much more than the annual festival. In particular it promotes and educates our young. It is associated with the BBC Young Musicians, it has its own Young Musicians platform and it has a youth choir from local schools.
All this takes an huge amount of work by its founders, Penny and John Adie who seem to have handed over their whole lives to this. There are many others who give up their time and skills to forward this invaluable project.
The reason that your discussion caught my eye is that I have got sucked into fund raising for the festival and I have been amazed at how hard this is and how much we need to raise.
The concerts are always well supported, we sold 6000 tickets last year, but the ticket revenue accounts for just 25% of funding requirements. We run local events such as a garden party, talks and lunch parties but the main funding comes from John's work with charities, the Arts Council and commercial organisations.
Without the financial support of public funding, this festival would not happen and then where would the singers and musicians for Glyndbourne come from? Who would discover them, who would train them, who would give them exposure to audiences, where would they mix with other talented youngsters?
The festival has commissioned an Opera "Tarka the Otter" which will have a youth choir and cast with professional soloists and orchestra. This is expensive! But what an opportunity for all who live in the area to benefit, and what a contribution to the national wealth in the arts
John and Penny give their all to this and I think that our society ought to support them. There must be many other organisations like ours and without these our lives would be much the poorer.

Malcolm Smith

The state should have nothing to do with the arts at all.

Peter Foldiak

Subsidy or no subsidy for art is, at present, a superficial matter.

Most people in Britain are actually unaware of the arts - because of our crippling cultural centralism and

Get the show properly on the road and then we'll be able to talk intelligently about subsidy.

Quentin Williams

Its my fervent belief that the arts council impinges on my artistic independence of thought and action by operating to restrict fair trade, competition and communication through
monopolistic and prejudicial tendencies by channelling capital and intellectual property in a partial manner to promulgate the self serving interests of a centrist governmental cabal and those that sup at the ample and abundant teats that are available to engineer and control that which is deemed as relevant to funding criteria.

Harrison Birtwhistle, in referring to the pop music industry
referred yesterday to a "beast that requires constant feeding", likewise I think, to what has become known as the "creative industries".

An illustration:

Where I live, around Lancaster and Morecambe, funding for arts projects could be favourably received if it encouraged
tourism or technological development, even better if it promoted social cohesion or sustainability.

I may say that, actually, art can be about more than that, referring to humanity en masse, individually or intellectually, from a psychological, anthropormological or philosophical perspective, this would be dismissed as irrelevant to funding criteria - quite rightly too, you might add, if jobs and not smoke are your main concern - fine.

Jacob Bronowski said, standing in the mud at Auschwitz nearly fourty years ago, that we have to bridge the gap between the push button response and the human touch.

All power corrupts.

Robert Coleman

Let me start by pointing out that even phrasing the question the way you did means begging it. It presupposes that public funding for the arts is tantamount to their restriction, of which they need to be "freed". Having so framed the debate, you will inevitably proceed to answer that the "freeing" of the arts should happen - if not now then eventually.

In historical perspective, current (late-modern, liberal) state funding is probably the LEAST content-restrictive of all forms of art sponsorship. Certainly less restrictive than pandering to the tastes and opinions of the Crowned Heads of Eurpoe, Rajas and Nawabs in India , and Emperors in China and Japan , to name just a few highly sophisticated societies of the past.

Allow me to posit that it is also less restrictive than the alternative "playing to the gallery" attitude which is responsible for much of popular culture's present debasement and uniformity. "Unfunded" art does not exist. But whereas in order to obtain state funding an artist needs to exhibit artistic merit, to obtain funding, or even attention, from private, for-profit Moguls, s/he needs to exhibit marketability - a goal which is achieved mosty and increasingly by rote replication of past successes, stifling true artistic progress, innovation, and free dialogue.

Isn't this essence of being 'entrepreneurial'? What is the 'attention span' of the typical entrepreneur? How does it compare with the long years of drudgery an artist has to withstand before s/he produces a single thing of beauty? How many financial failures are entrepeneurs willing to absorb? More or less than the many failures an artist has to mush through before achieving any degree of sucess? And what does that mean for the development of artists (who can be thought of as the pennyless micro-entrepreneurs of their own lives)?

To counter your example - the Globe's success demostrates the point rather nicely. It is eminently marketable as is mainstream (mostly pre 20th century) opera. But without state support for artists, smaller, less central, voices wouldn't stand a chance of being heard.

And eventually, without a teeming multitude of artists who are consigned, and resigned, to marginality, there can be no life in the Centre either. It will become a dessicated caparace, an ossified core, which will end up being discarded as well, by the same Moguls who fund it today, for its lifelessness.

Finally, compare the content on publicly funded BBC 3, CBC, Radio France, and on most 'Classical Music' stations in the USA - sad spectres, broadcasting the most famous single movements of nothing but the best known repertoire. None of the 'Ring in a Day' nonsense there.


David Tsabar

I'm sure I won't be the only one to say that only making 'art' which is financially viable is a limitation which would stifle the creation of new work.

One of the simplest delineations to make between 'art'
and 'entertainment' (and I do realise that such distinctions are in part arbitrary) is the intention of the creator - entertainement tends to be driven by the need the elicit response (e.g. to get a good laugh, to be exciting etc). Whereas generally art embraces a bigger picture and is not afraid to challenge and to explore, even when the going gets tough.

Trying to make works of art which reach a certain market percentage (which is certainly not new to arts council thinking, who until not so long ago insisted any new musical work was seen/heard by at least a thousand people) makes for a popular, but watered down new work.

While personally I do not likethe many obtuse and intellectual works of art which engage only a small elite, I recognise that if we want works which express the more profound things of life, explore new territory, rather than simply regurgitate existing ideas and which engage people in new and sometimes challenging ways, then there needs to be a system for funding it outside of box office returns.

As for the arts council itself, that's a different matter, I'm sure they do some good somewhere, but in 10 years of dealing with them I find they're inept, beaurocratic and patronising - sack them all!! try giving the money to the artists for a change, instead of trying to turn the artists into the accountants and project managers who seem to dominate the arts council....ahem, pardon me.

best regards

Dennis Turney

Of course the state shouldn't fund the arts.
I have a friend who is passionate about ska. I don't much care for it myself, but as he speaks eloquently about it, I do appreciate that it is a genre which has depth and subtlety to the connesieur, although the delicate distinction between rudeboy and rocksteady is something which is really of no interest to me. But neither do I care for opera, and my opera loving friends have really been no more convincing than my ska loving friend that there is anything intriniscally beautiful about their particular genre of choice.
Opera and classical music receive state funding for the simple reason that powerful and influential people like them, and find them 'worthy'. They like them for cultural and social reasons, not because they are in anyway superior to other genres of music. Pop music recieves no subsidy, but thrives. Of course, 99% it anodyne nonsense, but what about Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Brian Eno, or Boards of Canada? All boundary pushing experimental artists who have found a commerical niche without sponging off taxpayers.
Those who advocate the state funding of the arts are putting forward the dispicable idea that the vast majority of the population, the Greenday-listening Pixar-watching masses, should fund the hobby of the ruling elite. Of course they shouldn't. Even more outrageous is the idea, often put forward, that we can somehow educate the masses into appreciating opera: the idea that 'if only they knew better their lives would be so enriched'. It's nonsense and it's offensive nonsense. We don't like opera for the same reasons they don't like Elvis. We just don't; it doesn't connect and no amount of cheesey popularisation strategies will change that.
But it's not just that withdrawing subsidy from the arts would do no harm. I argue that it would actually do good. What are these creative, driven, fecund artists going to do, if they can no longer sponge off the taxes of lorry drivers and cleaners? Are they going to wither away and become accountants or civil engineers? Of course not. They will still pursue art, but they will not have the huge temptation to channel it into the sterile idioms dictated by state funding. They may be poorer, but they will produce better art, not worse. Better, more vibrant and a thousand times more alive than the brain-dead corpse which feebly persists on the life-support of state funding.

Andy Suttie

This is the easiest question I have ever had to answer. NO, unless you want The Nutcracker and Carmen all year round. Once arts subsidies stop the quality level will gradually decline. The effects on culture will be irreversible. I know firsthand. I live in America !

Sam Serafy

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