Government cuts underestimate the value of arts and culture

Patricia Cain’s Building the Riverside Museum was unveiled as The Threadneedle visual arts prizewinner this week. At the same time, a survey commissioned by the award’s organizers revealed two-thirds of the public agree cultural institutions should rely less on taxpayer’s money.

With the government asking funding bodies to demonstrate how they would handle budget cuts of 25 to 40 per cent, these results seemingly reflect a view of the arts as an indulgence in today’s tough economy.

It is hard to argue the case for arts funding over say the NHS or education. However things are rarely that simple. It would be foolish to suggest that culture can cure all of the country’s ills, but it certainly contributes positively in many ways.

The arts are not just about expensive opera or experimental works appreciated by the educated few. Film, theatre and music provide entertainment, stimulus and therapy for millions. The cultural benefits are hard to measure, but it doesn’t mean they should be ignored.

If a small regional theatre closes due to lack of funding, it not only affects the local community but also has a knock-on effect on the national theatre. This impacts the creative industry and tourism as a whole. Did you know that six of the top ten UK tourist attractions are museums?

The argument should not focus solely on production either. For every play or musical, there is an arts-based improvement programme.

Creative Partnerships is an education project set up by the Arts Council 10 years ago. It aims to embed creative learning in schools by enabling students to work with artists, performers and creative professionals.

Its success is unquestionable, with the students involved averaging progress of two and a half GCSE grades. The programme is expected to generate a up to £4bn net benefit to the UK economy, yet future funding remains unclear.

Despite examples like this, most press attention has concentrated on the axing of the UK Film Council, as celebrities line up to protest. Ironically this is an example of the right type of spending cut, one that is targeting waste rather than reducing the amount of money invested in production.

The Film Council has been involved in numerous successes, from Gosford Park to Bend it Like Beckham. However if reports of employing numerous highly paid executives and blowing 25 per cent of it’s funding on administration costs are true, there is no argument.

During the media storm, it’s been easy to miss the fact no cuts have been made to the amount of National Lottery funding for film production. It’s just the administrative body that has been abolished.

One celebrity cause deserving recognition is Save the Arts, a campaign backed by over 100 leading artists like Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor and David Shrigley. They have responded to proposed budget cuts with an online petition and new artworks, including posters and short films.

Shrigley’s animated video outlines compelling reasons for continued funding, while recognising the importance of essential services – as the film’s narrator puts it: “After all, if your house is on fire, Tracy Emin isn’t going to come round and put it out for you is she?”

So what is the government’s response? Culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, suggests that more private organisations follow the lead of the Sainsbury family’s recent £25m donation to the British Museum.

While philanthropy is welcome and has a part to play, relying on it too heavily puts major funding decisions in the hands of the wealthy few. Corporate sponsorship is another option mentioned, but how will this affect creative freedom?

The UK must reduce its £155bn budget deficit and cultural institutions should definitely share the pain. However, any cuts need to be sensible and considered, targeting waste without stifling the country’s creative pulse.

The financial benefits of the arts are well documented; the industry is generally credited with creating £2 of revenue for every £1 invested. If October’s much-talked about spending review cuts too deep, the government risks costing the country more money than it saves.

Related Links

[insert-html-here 20]