A tough choice is coming on arts funding – and we need to make it

Baltic mill during the Turner Prize

Prestige and pride for the north-east – but is it still a good use of our money?

COMMENT: What is arts funding for? That is a difficult decision the arts community has to make, before someone else makes it for us.

Now, don’t get me wrong. In the early hours on May 8th, I was one of the many people who threw my cushion at the telly in disgust and went to bed – along with, I suspect, most of the arts community. But the fact remains a Conservative majority has been elected, and that means more cuts are on the way. (For the record, my own view is that some sort of cuts were necessary in the last Parliament but no further cuts are needed in Parliament, but that’s not what the voters decided. Arse.) And this almost certainly means that arts funding is going to take a further hit. Let’s be realistic: there’s not much we can do to stop this. It is inconceivable that we can make the case to exempt arts from cuts when services such as the Police and social care are facing cuts too. There was a good case to argue no further austerity is needed, but the other side won the vote. There are perhaps some battles to be fought over how much of the cuts should fall on the arts, but the chance of escaping cuts altogether is about zero.

And it’s a shame that the arts are facing further cuts. I feel the arts industry – theatres in particular – have handled this matter with remarkable pragmatism and dignity. Most anti-cuts protests seem to either call for the government to either stick more paper in the money-printing machine, or make ludicrous claims about how we could definitely pay for everything if only we raided the tax havens of those fat cats. Campaigns such as My Theatre Matters, on the other hand, have accepted they can’t be exempt from cuts but don’t want the arts subsidies to be singled out as an easy cash cow (such as what councils such as Newcastle try to do). Some big theatres such as Newcastle’s Theatre Royal are even honest enough to say that they can manage without a subsidy and other theatres need the money more.

But the reality is that you can’t escape cuts simply by being pragmatic or dignified. The question is likely to be not if there’s cuts but where the cuts fall. Chances are the choices will be more painful than last time. But if it has to come to this, it’s important that we have our say. I’m not saying that the arts industry should do the government’s dirty work in deciding where to make cuts, but the one thing we urgently need to agree is what the purpose of arts funding is.

For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts:

The unpopular bit

First of all, let’s keep the hyperbole in check. Contrary to what some people seem to think, there will still be art without arts subsidies. There are plenty of people out there who are capable of producing great art without public funds. I suspect people who are doing stuff off their backs without arts council grants are sometimes looked down on by subsidised theatre on the assumption that if they were any good, someone would fund them, but if you look at what people can bring to festival fringes without the taxpayers’ help you’ll see how wrong that is. Okay, there is the important question over who can actually afford to do this; you don’t need a lot of money to produce theatre (I certainly don’t), but the less money you have, the harder it gets. But art can exist without funding. Suffice to say there was no arts council when Shakespeare wrote his plays.

Ah, but before there was public funding there was “patronage”, where a lucky few artists lived off the fortunes of a few rich men. And who got their lucky break and what they could produce was at the mercy of the whims of these aforementioned rich men. Nowadays patronage has evolved into commercial sponsorship, but the same questions remain. Who are the sponsors accountable to? What art will they allow to flourish? Is it on merit, or just someone’s personal tastes. All valid questions – but the same questions apply to public funding. It’s never been terribly clear who gets funding and how much personal tastes come into play, or how accountable these decisions are. I will say I don’t have any problem with who’s getting funded in the theatre world, but I’m not so sure about fine arts subsidies (which I will get on to later). And in countries such as the Netherlands, arts funding seems to have a notoriety as an unaccountable self-perpetuating clique using public funds to keep themselves and their mates in jobs.

To make myself clear: I have no reason to believe anyone’s considering the outright abolition of arts subsidies, and I would vehemently oppose it if anyone did. But public funding of arts cannot simply be justified for the sake of it. It has to be justified as something worthwhile to the public who are paying for it. I don’t want arts funding replaced by commercial sponsorship or people producing art with their own time and money. But don’t knock the people producing art this way. We need them.

The golden rule

So, with that out of the way, what should we be doing with arts funding? I suggest we work on this principle: Arts funding should be focused on art that 1) delivers public benefit and 2) can only exist with public funding. This is a simple statement with a lot of complicated details, so I will have to expand on this further. I will be concentrating on theatre as that’s my area of interest, but I will digress into a few not-so-popular comments about other arts.

Beginning with the second half: art that can only exist with public funding. I’d say that rules out most funding of commercial programmes such as Newcastle Theatre Royal and the Sunderland Empire. I am NOT saying that the plays shown at these theatres are too low-brow to deserve public funds – if jukebox musicals such as Jersey Boys or Dreamboats and Petticoats are drawing in thousands of people, well done to them. But the bottom line is, they can manage with or without a public subsidy. If they don’t need it, there’s better places to send the money.

But the Theatre Royal and Empire frequently host a excellent example of public funds put to good use: plays from the National Theatre such as War Horse and The Curious Incident. These plays started off at the National Theatre, with a public subsidy that allowed them to take risks, and now they’re touring the country to huge audiences on a fully commercial basis. If that’s not a prime example of value for money in public subsidy, I don’t know what is. Now, I’m not saying the National Theatre status as a subsidised theatre should be set in stone – if West End theatres can show themselves to be capable of producing equally successful and innovative plays, we might have to reconsider – but so far, the National is way ahead of the West End in what it’s offering the arts world.

Similarly, up in the north east, we need to value what Live Theatre and Northern Stage do. They both draw in smaller crowds that the Theatre Royal, and their track record is a lot more hit-and-miss. But as I’ve said many times before, it doesn’t matter if they produce the occasional dud as long as they have something to show for it with the hits – especially if the hits go on to have successful commercial run, or provide inspiration to others for future plays. Again, like the National, their funding cannot be unconditional – should either theatre turn into an artistic director’s playground where new plays routinely sink without trace and audience appeal is treated like it doesn’t matter, funding would have to be rethought – but as long they can produce successful productions that have benefit long after the run finishes, we need theatres like these.

In the long run, we might need to factor in commercial sponsorship. I would be VERY wary about over-reliance on commercial sponsors – just occasionally, I hear cases when sponsors have abused their position and stopped artists saying things embarrassing to them – but equally we need to think about whether we should use scarce public funds on artists capable of finding their own sponsorship. To some extent, this happens already, with a lot of public funding conditional on matched  private funding, but we may need to go further if we’re to get the best use of public money.

I suspect a lot of this is already taken into consideration by the Arts Council (I tried to make sense of their guidelines but I lost the will to live before I could work it out), but it’s worth restating again. If belts must be tightened, let’s make sure it goes where it’s needed the most.

What about the artists?

Now we move on to a much tougher issue: what about people who want to make a career out of the arts? This is a big problem, and it was a problem before the cuts started to bite, especially for independent artists. Back in 2013 Bryony Kimmings wrote a piece about how much of a struggle it was for her to manage financially – and she is one of the most respected and successful independent artists in the country. God knows how the rest of them manage.

This is an issue that must be taken seriously. Much of what we produce depends on who goes on to become the next great writers or directors or performers. But how many would-be great writers/directors/performers don’t make it because they can’t make ends meet? We don’t know. Natalie Querol from The Empty Space recently wrote a piece about the number of artists who give up for this reason. (I normally treat anecdotal claims like this with caution – anyone can use that to make the impact of cuts sound worse than they really are – but I know Natalie Querol and I trust her to say what she genuinely thinks.) Okay, not all of them would have gone on to be the next Laurence Olivier, but who knows what we’ll be missing out on in ten years’ time?

Again, to start with the unpopular thing I have to say, we cannot justify arts funding solely on keeping artists in jobs. Even in the good times, no-one should be entitled to make a living as an artist just because that’s what you want to do. If you want to make a living for it, you’ve got to have something to show for it – and by that I’m not talking about feedback from your mates saying what a genius you are, but evidence that you’ve got something to offer the wider public. I’ve seen more than enough dross from people who think they deserve full-time careers as artists, and sorry, but there’s better places to send my taxpayer’s money.

But how do we decide where the money should go? How do we sort the upcoming talent from the dross? Here I will throw my hands up – I can’t think of any good solution. Should it be decided by an arts council committee that assesses artistic merit? Leave it up to theatres to decide who deserves the money? Either way, it’s too easy for a few people in charge to reinterpret artistic potential as their own personal tastes. If we’re not careful, we’ll end up with an arts world where the only people who stand a chance are the lucky few chosen by the powerful few. It could be little better than the bad old days of patronage, where one unaccountable group of individual with private funds is replaced by another group of unaccountable people with public funds.

What I will say is that, in the long term, we need a change of mindset. I’ve long argued that we must allow people without arts funding a fair chance against people with (which is why small venues and festival fringes are so important to theatre), but we need to go further. One big barrier to aspiring artists is the idea that anyone who have chosen to pursue a career outside the arts should not be taken seriously as an artist. This has got to change. The reality is that, in the future, fewer people are going to be able to pursue art as a primary career. More people are going to be doing this in their spare time on top of a job, and anyone who is dismissing this as an indulgence or a hobby has got to stop.

We can look at making art more accommodating for people with jobs, or making jobs more accommodating for people with aspirations in the arts, but the most important thing is the change of mindset. I realise that this won’t be popular with everyone. If you’re supported by an arts council grant and you’re earning a living from your work, it doesn’t help you to open up competition to other unpaid artists who can afford to do it off they’re own backs. But we can’t have future where the arts are monopolised by a shrinking number of artists lucky enough to get funding. We will be shutting out too much future talent.

And the other things …

Support to independent artists is important, but there’s a lot of other things we have to consider too.

Quite a lot is being made of theatres providing education to schools and young people, and the interest in provokes in the next generation. I must say, I am a little sceptical about the full extent of the benefits. Yes, it is great to get young people interested, but I suspect the real barriers come after the age of 21. After this age, the level of interest in supporting aspiring artists plunges alarmingly, at a time when many people are starting off and need the most help. I can’t speak for every discipline, but it is my opinion that support for non-young aspiring writers is very poor (with the exception of the few such as myself who have the means to produce their own work). There seems to be a collective idea that because you can submit script after script to reading departments – who will probably bin the lot without no advice on how to get better – they are doing you a huge favour. So yes, we need the support to young people (and some theatres seem alarmingly quick to suggest scrapping this), but if this is to be of full benefit, we need to think about when happens next.

A lot is being made of class divide in arts, and whilst I hate the concept of thinking in “classes”, we urgently need to look at what’s happening in acting careers. The profession seems to be dominated by people with wealthy parents; exactly how far it’s gone is under debate, but with the highest-profile drama schools charging a fortune in fees, and too many agents and theatres only looking at graduates from these drama schools, it’s no wonder it’s a problem. I’m not sure we can solve this problem by throwing money at it, but we can take lessons from Live and Northern Stage who I think are doing a good job here. Live frequently looks beyond RADA and LAMBDA when casting and instead goes for graduates of places like Northumbria University, whilst Northern Stage has its annual NORTH scheme that gives six new actors their first break without the need for a bank of mum and dad. A lot of good would be done if other theatres followed their example.

Serious questions need asking about the geographical distribution of arts funding. I could write at length my thoughts on this – and one day I probably will – but the short version is that it’s quite worrying the Art Council thinks that 50% of NPO funding going outside London is an achievement and not a cause for concern. But as well as funding between regions, there’s the issue of funding within regions. As I’ve pointed out before, Tyne and Wear gets 80% of north-east NPO funding in spite of only having 40% of the north-east’s population – but unlike the London/regions disparity, no-one seems to be speaking up for Northumbria, County Durham or Teesside. Somebody should.

And that’s just what I can think of off the top of my head. There will be other issues too. It’s all going to be complicated.

But where shall the cuts go?

Now for the last bit. It’s all very well saying what cuts you oppose, but if it’s a question of not if there’ll be cuts but where the cuts fall – and, let’s face it, that’s the way things are – you can’t stop a cut in one place without something else getting the axe instead. You don’t need to say which cuts you’d least object to, but it helps. I’ve already said that theatres (and other arts organisations) that can manage without public funds don’t need them, but what else could we look at.

One thing I would be prepared to let go are these subsidised tickets for expensive things like traditional grand opera. Not because I don’t like opera, but because I don’t think the cost justifies the benefit. I realise opera is seen as a middle-class pursuit with the working-class shut out, but I don’t see what benefit a cut-price ticket brings beyond the person who got the ticket.. If we want to remove financial barriers to opera, we’re better off finding more ways to produce opera cheaply, so that costs are lower, tickets are cheaper, and more people can afford to go. Expensive orchestras and choruses and staging are nice to have, but you can have decent opera without.

And – this is the one which won’t go down well in some quarters – we really need to question whether we should be subsidising contemporary fine art so much. Subsidised performing arts proves it worth when hundreds or thousands of people buy tickets, but I really have to question who “contemporary” arts benefits other than a clique of people who think their superior tastes in art deserve special treatment. They will doubtless say how many people visit the Tate Modern every year, but with admission being free, I really have to wonder how many people genuinely come because they like the art on display – and how many come to admire the building, gawp and giggle, or just feel part of an enlightened club by pretending to like it.

Some people, I accept, genuinely do like this kind of art, and I respect their tastes, but a lot more people don’t – and the public funding does not seem to bear any resemblance to what most people want to see. And, worse, with funding and attention so lop-sided, I think talented people who can produce stuff people want aren’t getting a fair chance. Do we really need to spend so much money on commissions so few people care about? Just to be clear – yes, doing what I suggest could have major implications for mima and the Baltic up here in the north-east. I’m not saying they should close, but they might have to become a lot more commercial. But is displaying stuff that people might actually want to buy such a bad thing?

And finally, the big “but”

So, there’s my thoughts. But that’s just me. Maybe you all agree with me. Maybe I’m in a minority of one. Perhaps there’s a consensus that commercial theatre should have public support. Maybe you all think that private sponsorship stifles artistic freedom and public funding is needed to counter this. You might think that we shouldn’t encourage unpaid artists to undercut paid ones. It might be that you all think funding for the Damien Hirsts and Tracy Emins of the country must be protected over everything else. All these views are fine. And whatever consensus the arts industry forms, I will back it. But we have to choose between one or the other. Ask for everything, and we’ll be ignored.

Ultimately, this is the choice. Either we artists decide what arts funding should be protected and what funding should go, or the government will make the decision for us. And, given the choice, I know who I’d rather have making the decision.

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