Theatre comment: In defence of the arts (again)

Karate_pictogram.svgI recently wrote an article entitled In Defence of The Arts, in which I set out to deconstruct the fundamentally flawed logic behind the idea that cutting back arts funding would be a “harmless” cut. Despite criticism that my article was Londoncentric, (a criticism I accept), I was very happy with the response it received. I thought that one article would have been enough on the subject. However, in the short time between writing that article and now, there have been worrying developments which make me feel the need to run to theatre’s defence once more.

Despite Labour’s shadow Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Harriet Harman assuring otherwise, it appears that Newcastle City Council is still going ahead with its savage cut to its own arts budget. This decision is the ultimate false economy; for every £1 invested in Newcastle’s theatres, £4 is created for the local economy and beyond, be that in ice-cream sales or set design and construction, VAT created on ticket sales, or for local employment in the fleet of ushers, technicians or box office staff. The value of theatre within the tourism industry also appears to be going unnoticed, for instance in the cases of Edinburgh or Stratford. Cut theatre and there is no going back, as witnessed by the very uncertain future of the Derby Playhouse. This government runs the very substantial risk of creating cultural wastelands, indeed “cutting arts funding is akin to cutting your own throat” according to Christine Bond of BECTU (Broadcast, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union).

Cultural wastelands are not only outside London, but potentially within it too; it is worrying to hear that the Almeida has seen a 39 percent cut in funding.

So where does this blinkered ideology stem from? Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Jeremy Hunt agreed to a 24 percent cut in his department’s budget over four years, with £104 million per year being taken out of Arts Council England’s budget, seemingly ignoring that the UK is a net exporter of cultural product. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. In the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales, arts budgets have remained relatively stable, while in Northern Ireland, arts funding has actually increased. Cuts to the arts therefore are a question of ideology, not necessity.

A future in which theatres have to rely on patronage and donation from wealthy benefactors is very worrying indeed. Whilst Shakespeare’s Globe survives admirably well with no state funding whatsoever, this should be the exception to the rule not a precedent for others to follow. A happy compromise could be the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden (and many others), which splits revenue three ways; box office ticket sales, arts council funding and individual donations. The very real risk is that a system of patronage will perpetuate the idea that theatre is a plaything for predominantly white, wealthy and older audiences, appealing to those who are likely to leave donations and not reflecting society as a whole.

Another risk is that with no money in theatre, the giants of the West-End machine, people like Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh will totally monopolise future theatre creation. Whilst their contribution to theatre is undeniable, it leaves little room for the experimental or up-and-coming theatre and artists which thrive in off-West End venues.

The answer is quite simple: local statutory funding for the arts. Walk down any high street and you’ll come across remnants of what used to be an HMV or a Blockbuster perhaps. Let’s not be the generation that saw and allowed defunct theatres to add to our ghost towns. Statutory funding was last in a manifesto (Labour’s) in 1992. It deserves a curtain-call.

Image: Wikimedia Commons