Philistinism of cuts
Jim Gilbert warns of increased corporate involvement in the arts
Along with other unprotected areas of government expenditure, the budget of the department for culture, media and sport (DCMS) is being slashed by 25%. This unprecedented attack on the funding of arts and culture goes far beyond what the Thatcher administration felt able to do, although it expresses the same viciously philistine values.
Under the government of Margaret Thatcher, any idea that the arts should be challenging was ditched, as Tory grandees presided over the development of the ‘heritage industry’. ‘Culture’ was regarded as the promotion of a mythologised Merrie England and a pasteurised past that might appeal to a certain kind of tourist. But the coalition is going much further.
At a recent meeting called by the secretary of state for culture, Olympics, media and sport, Jeremy Hunt, arts organisations were told to forget the existing funding model altogether - in favour of one that relies on philanthropy. Hunt has written to the top 200 donors to cultural organisations to thank them for past generosity and is “currently looking at how to make it easier for cultural bodies to raise funds.” Since there is to be this drastic and systematic withdrawal of state funds for the arts, the Tory intention is that those who want to be creative will have to look elsewhere to sustain themselves and their organisations.
It has to be said that the arts and culture generally in Britain are already quite conservative. But that is nothing to how conservative they will become if they have to rely heavily on charity handouts from rich donors and corporations. He who pays the piper calls the tune. Projects will have to pass individuals’ and corporate managers’ tests of artistic value. How could it be otherwise?
One major flaw in the Tory-Lib Dem plan is that there are no guarantees that funding from such private sources would anyway cover the projected shortfall, which is set to increase markedly. And where philanthropy fails to fill the gap, even mainstream museums and theatres might well be on the way to closing. It is even more likely that many cultural centres and other venues that are an outlet for artistic talent will struggle the most, especially where they encourage more innovative and searching forms of expression. For why will those owning or controlling wealth and potential largesse be interested in subsidising projects whose challenging nature could be viewed as directed against the very social system from which such donors benefit? Rather, bland or kitsch decoration and works that uphold the approved version of British tradition and ‘heritage’.
A Disneyfied cultural scene rather than a critical one is what appeals to conservative instincts. Instead of an artistic critique of society, this reactionary view much prefers a bowdlerised reflection of past ‘glories’ and inoffensive mediocrity. While Shakespeare’s Globe on London’s South Bank has thankfully become a worthwhile theatrical venue, its Thatcherite conception was to fit with what middlebrow America might regard as quaintly English.
Arts Council England, which exists to disburse government funds to the arts in England, has suffered an immediate £19 million (4%) reduction in its budget for this year, much of which will be taken up by exhausting its reserves. It means that a total of 880 arts organisations across the board are experiencing a reduction in funding for the current year of 0.5%. For some organisations hanging on by their fingernails, even this is a blow, given that budgets for this year are already tight. But this is only the beginning, as the great bulk of the cuts are not due to be implemented until the next financial year.
According to a letter sent earlier this month to funded bodies, ACE chief executive Alan Davey gives notice that its cuts decisions are to take the form of two hits: firstly for 2011-12 grants, and secondly for the 2012-13 and 2014-15 grant years together. Perhaps the bitter pill is supposed to be easier to swallow in two gulps. In his letter Davey states: “... we have been asked to model a reduction of up to 30% over four years; we are now asking you to model prudently for a minimum of a 10% reduction in your funding for 11-12.” This means that the second series of cuts will be even more severe than the first, removing as much as twice what is to be cut next year. Retrenchment starts now, however, for all ACE-funded organisations, as they grapple with the problems that a 10% reduction will mean for their projected work in 2011 and 2012.
It is ironic that a prime purpose of ACE, as featured prominently on its website, is so contradicted by the coalition’s policy of slash and burn across the board: “Culture is central to any government that places quality of life and creative opportunity at the heart of its agenda.” Well, not as far as this one is concerned.
Some sectors within the DCMS remit have already been hit hard. Extensive projects at the British Film Institute (BFI) have been scrapped. “We are concerned that film is bearing the brunt. Over 50% of the DCMS cuts announced are coming from the film sector,” says a BFI statement.
BP, a firm that has recently been in the news for other reasons, has given arts money for over 30 years. “Our strategy focuses on long-term partnerships with a small number of outstanding institutions: the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House and Tate Britain.” However, what with BP’s problems currently in the Gulf of Mexico, who knows how its future funding of these prestigious arts organisations may pan out? If arts organisations are to depend on such donors even more heavily in the future, their sustainability has to be questionable. Not only are their futures dependent on corporate whim and notions of acceptability, but also on these corporations’ profitability in times of capitalist crisis. That is certainly not assured.
Artists themselves are far from happy with the concept and actuality of corporate sponsorship. The Good Crude Britannia, “a national artists’ campaign against BP sponsorship of Tate,” was launched somewhat theatrically at the end of the June at Tate Britain’s Summer Party. Jane Trowell of the arts activist group, Platform, commented: “We hope that, as happened with the tobacco industry, it will soon come to be seen as socially unacceptable for cultural institutions to accept funding from big oil.”
In fact, arts funding in Britain is already very poor. Apart from the high culture on offer at institutions such as Sadler’s Wells and Covent Garden, those groups trying to finance arts projects regarded as less safe by the establishment already struggle to get even paltry funds from the state. Now even harder times are in prospect, further marginalising many artists and preventing their work from being appreciated by wider audiences.
However, increasing involvement of the corporate world in the arts is on the cards - if the economic situation and company bottom lines do not fall through the floor, that is. Enter stage right, Arts and Business, which exists to “connect companies and individuals to cultural organisations and provide the expertise and insight for them to prosper together.”
North of the border the future is equally uncertain for arts projects. Launched this month, Creative Scotland has taken over the functions and resources of the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen. When its board meets for the first time next month, it will identify key priority spending areas - in other words, deciding which arts projects in Scotland will bite the dust under the new regime.
Implementation of an investment review announced by the Arts Council of Wales at the end of last month will reduce the number of organisations it funds by a third. As The Stage noted at the time, “32 arts bodies, including Beaufort Theatre, Gwent Theatre and the Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts, will lose their regular core funding at the end of next March.”
Obviously getting financial support from the state and its organs, such as the ACE and their equivalents, can have negative impacts on what artists want to achieve. However, it is, though flawed, a way of obtaining some part of the social product, of the wealth that society as a whole creates. Social suasion plays at least a role in this manner of getting funding. But for this government that is anathema. It is aiming for privatisation of arts funding. In this view, social product remains more and more where these reactionaries of the first water see it should stay as of right: in the possession of the owners and operators of capital. Once it is within their control, these individual ‘true’ owners of the social product may then deign to disburse it where they will. A portion may come the way of the arts ... if they are lucky and are sufficiently craven.
Instead of what can be persuaded, pressured or cajoled out of state funders, the new government’s diktat on the arts means that those with projects in mind must go cap in hand to the wealthy for scraps from their table. Such ignominy is insufferable. What is necessary is for artists and those who work with them to fight what is threatened by these cuts, exposing them as antithetical to humanity’s spirit of generosity and solidarity that artistic expression often tries to encapsulate.
In the end, only a society that does away with profit as its sole raison d’être can lead to art’s blossoming. To imagine that the profit-mongers at the top of corporations can consistently nurture and promote artistic talent is the height of folly.
Government cuts essentially define artistic licence as a tax-deductible. Capitalism proves once again that it pollutes and destroys all it touches.
- ‘Why the arts matter’, Arts Council England: www.artscouncil.org.uk/about-us/why-arts-matter
- British Film Institute: www.bfi.org.uk/news/61