Entertainment & Arts

Should the arts get public money?

The arts community has been getting to grips with the news of which theatres, galleries and other cultural organisations will receive funding from the Arts Council England in the future.

The Arts Council will distribute £310m of taxpayers' money in 2012/13 - down by £40m on the last financial year. But should the arts be subsidised at all - especially at a time when other public services are being cut?

No - Philip Booth, Institute of Economic Affairs

I do not doubt that the arts are an essential part of any country's culture.

Image caption The Royal Opera House has had its core Arts Council funding cut by 15%

The issue that is being disputed is whether the arts should be funded through voluntary means or whether there should be a significant amount of funding taken from the pockets of taxpayers and then distributed by a quango.

If it is widely recognised that the arts are essential for our culture, then there should be no problem financing them from voluntary sources.

Those voluntary sources are many - the sale of tickets, donations, private subscription, corporate sponsorship, legacies and the National Lottery. The National Lottery - which is a form of voluntary tax - is the only legitimate form of state support.

Throughout history, and across countries, there is no evidence that subsidy brings about more spending on the arts in total. Government subsidies in the UK are a relatively recent development - before World War II, the arts flourished without them.

Indeed, Britain was, historically, a magnet for the arts and, to a greater degree than probably anywhere else in the world, the arts were provided to a wide audience. The equation was simple - no audience, no funding.

Subsidies can crowd out private funding, as comparisons with the United States seem to suggest. Indeed, in the UK over recent years, as government subsidies for the arts have declined in relative terms, private finance has increased.

If we look at the operations of Glyndebourne, the Royal Opera House and La Scala in Italy at various times in the recent past it seems that, as the extent of public subsidy rises, costs rise.

Furthermore, it also seems there is a negative relationship between public subsidy and these organisations' ability to raise money from private sources.

Evidence suggests that subsidies do, indeed, increase costs rather than supply of the arts.

It seems that ticket prices at subsidised and unsubsidised venues have not tended to differ significantly. This is not surprising.

When the government is not the paymaster, the key relationships are between the providers of the arts, those attending performances and those giving voluntary donations. Accountability is strong.

If the key relationship instead is with a government bureaucracy, accountability breaks down.

When people are voluntarily financing the arts, the provision of culture will be intrinsically linked to the community. But when the government is financing the arts, bureaucratic attitudes will dominate.

Indeed, it is not surprising to see the Arts Council publish an exceptionally glossy 162-page annual report, spend nearly £50m on administration and have a gold-plated staff pension scheme.

This does not look like an organisation that is strapped for cash.

The Institute of Economic Affairs is a free market think tank.

Yes - Erica Whyman, artistic director of Northern Stage

It has become stylish to imply that "receiving public funding" really means "stealing from innocent taxpayers in order to pay for the indulgences of the unworthy".

Image caption Northern Stage produced Apples, about teenagers on a Middlesbrough council estate, last year

Civilised societies define it differently: as a collective contribution to the public good, made freely and targeted towards activities which are vital to our civic health and tend not to make a profit, even when done well.

I am convinced that the arts are a significant public good, that civic well-being is damaged when the arts are unsupported and, while they make an important economic contribution, their profitability is not a sufficient measure of their quality or their success.

I am increasingly uncomfortable with the economic argument, because it suggests that only activities which generate economic growth are deserving of public investment. Caring for the elderly, for instance, would fail this test.

However, it is worth repeating that public money spent on the arts has a proven tendency to turn into money spent elsewhere: on hotel rooms, restaurants, production supplies and, most importantly, jobs.

In Newcastle and Gateshead, every £1 of public investment in the 10 main cultural buildings results in £5 generated by the regional economy, according to the Treasury's own calculations, not least because between us we employ over 2000 people. Many of those jobs will be swiftly at risk if proposed cuts go ahead.

Not everyone in this country grows up thinking the arts are for them. Artists and educators are and should be obliged to create opportunities for people from all backgrounds to encounter the very best artistic experiences.

When we do this well, the results are staggering - individual confidence soars and life chances are radically improved.

One example: last year we made a show called Apples, an exhilarating account of growing up in Middlesbrough adapted from a novel by Richard Milward.

I'd like opponents of arts funding to ask themselves what it might feel like to be 15 in Middlesbrough and to find out there is a play on, in your home town, and it's about you.

The play toured all over the country and went on to win an award in Edinburgh. If our audience had had to pay all the costs of making the show (the modest £400 a week we pay our highly skilled actors, for instance) we would have had to charge £35 a ticket.

Could those young people have come at that price? The market says no. Should they make a contribution, appropriate to their income? I think so, yes.

So for around the price of a cinema ticket, they saw themselves represented on stage and were provoked, entertained and moved. They may even have been turned on to the theatre. They certainly felt less invisible, more significant, better understood.

The arts have always been able to make a society not just "Big" but cohesive, intelligent and better equipped to speak its mind. It is dangerous, ignorant and churlish to endanger them.

Erica Whyman is currently directing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which is at the Sheffield Crucible until Thursday and transfers to Northern Stage, Newcastle, on 12 April.

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