What difference will arts cuts really make?

By Ian Youngs
Arts reporter, BBC News

Merlin Theatre
Image caption,
The 240-seat Merlin Theatre in Frome, Somerset, lost its regular Arts Council England funding in 2011

Like many parts of life, theatres, galleries and other arts organisations are feeling the squeeze from funding cuts. But how will that affect what we see on stage or on a gallery wall?

Plays at The Merlin theatre in Frome, Somerset, and the Brewhouse in Taunton, rarely register on the national radar. But the venues have been of interest to the arts world of late.

They could be the canaries in the coal mine, having lost all regular Arts Council England and most local council funding.

The Brewhouse has fallen off its perch, having gone into administration in February. The Merlin is still going but with a changed set of shows in order to boost box office takings.

"We've tried not to change it too drastically," its director Claudia Pepler says. "But we've not been able to do the more challenging or riskier work - we've had to go to safer companies and safer, more classical shows so our audiences grow."

The outlook for arts funding across the rest of the country is not so drastic as in Somerset.

But a recent survey of 26 theatre companies by playwright Fin Kennedy found that more than half had cut back on shows, new writing and cast sizes.

"If you look at the programming across the reps, I think you'll see an upsurge in dead writers who are safely out of copyright," says Nicholas Wood of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain.

"You'll see an upsurge in the most popular GCSE texts - there are quite a lot of Of Mice And Men knocking around - and a lot of popular [shows], a lot of spectacular. But not a great deal of new writing."

He predicts a "dumbing down" in order to get bums on seats, warning that the diet must include more than proven hits.

"If the only thing that you can see is Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, no matter how high the production values are on its umpteenth tour, that is lessening the opportunities for the people who are creating work, performing and coming along to see it."

But is a more commercial outlook such a bad thing? Not necessarily, according to Philip Booth of the free market think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs.

There is nothing wrong with creating works with wide appeal, he says: "I'm sure you'll get more popular and populist art if it's funded privately, but I don't think you'll necessarily get worse art."

Image caption,
Red Ladder, which is currently touring The Thing About Psychopaths, is concerned about cast sizes

Britain was by no means "a nation of philistines" before the government started funding the arts in 1946, Mr Booth says.

"England's rich cultural tradition developed free of government funding and art had to appeal to the people. In the 16th Century, British theatre developed to much public acclaim precisely because it had to appeal to the public.

"In his day, Shakespeare was commercially successful and popular."

That may be true, but Leila Jancovich, a senior lecturer in cultural policy and arts management at Leeds Metropolitan University, argues that most artforms were restricted to the elite before governments attempted to widen access.

"A lot of classical music was played at court, or art was commissioned by wealthy people for their own private collections," she says. "Art might still exist, but whether anyone sees it is another matter."

The prospect of smaller cast sizes in theatres is frequently raised as one likely consequence of a budget squeeze.

Funding cuts "might mean slightly less rich actors, poor things" says Daily Mail theatre critic Quentin Letts, who points to a rising trend in actors playing more than one role in a show.

Lower production budgets do not necessarily mean worse art, he believes. "The artistic urge is still going to be there, and the artistic urge finds a way of getting out."

Rod Dixon, artistic director of the Leeds-based radical theatre company Red Ladder, is among those facing the prospect of staging smaller shows.

"My concern is that a lot of companies like ours will be touring two-handers or single-person shows and the public will get fed up of them. They want the depth and variety and colour that they get at the moment."

The company's hits have included the satire Big Society! starring Phill Jupitus. But Mr Dixon has a greater concern to do with the government's attempts to boost philanthropy as grants decline.

"My fear about philanthropy is that the wealthy will get the art that they find entertaining or engaging," he says. "The wealthy will get the art that maintains the status quo and won't pay for anything that shows any kind of dissent.

"The history of artistic dissent is strong in this country. It'll go underground, but we want mainstream art to have a critical and dissenting voice because that's healthy for democracy."

Leila Jancovich of Leeds Metropolitan University believes the cuts have so far been felt most severely by organisations that "absolutely could never be commercial".

"They're the more participatory and grassroots activities - everything from free community festivals in areas that don't have much other arts provision to arts organisations working with hard-to-reach groups," she says.

"The big institutions, by and large, will survive. But the interesting, experimental art is what would suffer, rather than this same diet of plays that are repeated over and over again."

'Coercive' philanthropy

In the visual art world, cuts are likely to mean a drop in the numbers of temporary exhibitions and events, according to David Lee, editor of The Jackdaw magazine.

But he adds: "Are we going to see a great effect on museums? The answer is no.

"If I go, for example, to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, if there isn't a temporary exhibition on, it doesn't bother me. There are so many glories in the permanent collections of many museums and galleries that it's almost an irrelevance."

Any increased reliance on philanthropic donations is a worry in the visual art world too.

At a recent conference, Liverpool Biennial artistic director Sally Tallant warned that "all philanthropy is coercive".

"The longer you work in the arts, [you realise] absolutely nobody gives you something for nothing - including the government," she says.

Her festival and other serious organisations would not let donors influence the art they choose, she says - but sponsors will only fork out if they like the work.

"Maybe there are some artists who are not well known, whose work is very risky, who perhaps [donors] might find it difficult to support," she says.

"It shouldn't be that you make a decision not to show them, but then, how do you fund those projects?"

She stresses that the UK is not yet in the situation where donors dictate artistic programming.

"That's why it's important that we don't get ourselves into that situation. We're one of the places in the world where creativity's really thriving. We should be proud of that."

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