Magazine article Public Finance

Bringing the Curtain Down on State-Funded Culture?

Magazine article Public Finance

Bringing the Curtain Down on State-Funded Culture?

Article excerpt

A chill was sent through the aits world as soon as the Conservative-led coalition came to power. Labour has traditionally been more generous to the sector and before the election there had been much Tory talk of encouraging greater private philanthropy.

And last month the prospects for theatres, museums, galleries and many more artistic institutions up and down the country took a turn for the worse. Staffing cuts of up to 50% were mooted at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, along with a move to smaller, shared premises.

This followed the axing of swathes of the department's quangos, including the UK Film Council and the Museums, libraries & Archives Council.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt stressed the role of private sponsorship. 'We will create a culture of giving, so that more of us have a connection with the things we care about... I want our major cultural institutions to be freed from government control so they can raise more money and spend it as they see fit,' he said in the DCMS's July structural reform plan.

Such proposals have also raised the ageold debate about whether the arts should receive any public subsidy at all. Currently just over half the income received by the sector comes from the public purse, but in the context of an unprecedented squeeze in public spending, the DCMS - which has one of the smallest departmental budgets at £2.1bn a year - looks increasingly vulnerable.

Martin Smith, former chair of London's Young Vic theatre, tells Public Finance that many of the country's national arts organisations could probably absorb hits of 10%-15% to their budgets, but anything more than that would be 'disastrous'. In such an event, support for new and cutting-edge projects would be the first to go, he claims, because they tend to be funded from discretionary spending. This would make it far harder to replace public funds with corporate sponsorship, sabotaging' the government's own objectives.

'Cuts of 40%-50% would be selfdefeating because it would stop these organisations from being able to deliver the very new work that is attractive to private sponsors,' he says. There would also be a 'disproportionately damaging' effect on English regions such as the Northwest, Northeast and West Midlands, where private philanthropy is already much less common than in the capital.

Smith, who is now managing director of West Bridge Consulting and policy adviser to Ingenious Media, is the author of Arts funding in a cooler climate. This report called for a new Office of Cultural Economics to help the aits sector better make its case for public subsidy. The body would be funded on a joint public/ private basis and would create and collate evidence on the impact of the arts on the UK economy.

Smith believes 'there is no doubt' that the wider creative sector, which employs just under 2 million people and accounts for 6.2% of the economy as a whole, would be damaged if public funding to the arts and heritage sector were cut to the extent that has been suggested.

"I do not propose that money should be spent on the arts when money is going to be taken away from schools and hospitals... My plea is simply that cuts should not be made on the basis of arbitran' arithmetic without an attempt to understand the consequences,' he adds.

But as the public deficit grows, arguments against public subsidy for the arts are gathering pace. Free-market thinkers have long asserted that the system is bureaucratic, inefficient and politicised, unequal between regions and focused mainly on those who could afford to attend such activities without taxpayer help. …

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