If we want to live in a prosperous nation again, then – for goodness sake – fund the arts


There was a time, perhaps 1945-1985, when arts policy in Britain was catching up finally with that of its neighbours in Europe. Although cities had been sustaining libraries, museums and galleries for a century or so, the performing arts had been left to themselves. Professional orchestras had been slow to develop and were freelance affairs.

The first to be able to offer contracts and salaries was the BBC Symphony Orchestra, founded by Adrian Boult in 1930. Only when Maynard Keynes persuaded the Treasury to allow the formation of the Arts Council of Great Britain (ACGB) after World War II, at much the same time as he was inventing the World Bank, did Britain make a significant effort to fund and educate for the arts.

Once the belief was fostered, it blossomed – never as much as in Germany, where every major town had its orchestra, drama theatre and opera house, all with staff treated as municipal employees, and never as much as in France, where the Ministry of Culture disseminated enough money to guarantee an equivalent but centralised infrastructure.

But at least in Britain, Keynes and his successors unlocked enough money to underpin some of the private initiatives that had survived the war.

Over the next 20 years, the Royal Festival Hall was built, the Royal Opera, Royal Shakespeare Company,
National Theatre (at the Old Vic and then in its own building) and Royal Ballet were formed, the BBC continued to establish orchestras around the country, and the Hallé in Manchester, CBSO in Birmingham, SNO in Glasgow, Bournemouth SO and Northern Sinfonia in Newcastle were put on firmer footings.

That still left huge gaps but by the 1980s many were filled, if not with permanent ensembles, at least with good buildings, like the Sheffield Crucible. Slowly minor companies (Scottish and Welsh National Opera, Royal Exchange Theatre) became major ones. You get the drift.

With this surge in infrastructure went a surge in arts education for the general population. School and
youth choirs and orchestras blossomed, as did visual art and drama courses. Schools bought instruments and children could have free lessons. New conservatoires and university departments opened to cater for those who wanted to move into the professions, either performing or teaching.

You no longer had to be rich to love music and there were good repertory theatres not too far away.

Then Mrs Thatcher won a second term on the back of the Falklands War and the dismantling, the great betrayal, began. Local authorities had their budgets cut back and, with the arts being discretionary spending, not statutory, those cuts hit there first.

Suddenly music lessons had to be bought, ticket prices rose as the ACGB funds failed to keep pace with inflation. Museums and galleries imposed entrance fees. They were all told to look for private and business sponsorship. Arts students started to be looked down upon at universities.

Over the next four decades the idea that access to the arts – not just as a spectator but as a participant – was a fundamental part of any citizen’s birthright was undermined.

With that the notion that everyone deserved the best, whatever their income, started to slip away.

Excellence was denigrated as elitism, the media shrunk their arts pages – with criticism becoming a brief consumer guide rather than a serious attempt at reporting and evaluation.

The introduction of the National Lottery was great for buildings and one-off projects but did little to support continuing work. It was a massive missed opportunity. If an equal endowment for content had been given with every big capital budget, arts organisations could have been safeguarded long into the future, whatever the spending plans of governments. But the Treasury refused.

Blair and Brown then added two more ’causes’ to be funded, diluting the amount for the arts while still making the Treasury’s 12 per cent chunk by far the biggest – a massive con against the public who thought their lottery money was all going to prizes and good causes.

And to what end? Can anyone remember what NESTA does, or has achieved in nearly 30 years?

No party is blameless so I won’t make a list. Current leaders are uninterested. None have followed through on the rhetorical promises.

The last 20 years have just confirmed and accelerated the destruction, with classical music under attack from every angle (including its guardians, the Arts Councils – four of them (now they are devolved) – and the BBC). Local authority support for the arts has been ravaged to the point of obliteration. Repertory theatre barely exists, libraries are closing – and certainly they are not restocking their shelves with books by non-mainstream authors.

Universities are told that not only the arts but all the humanities are luxuries unnecessary in our utilitarian age, despite the massive amounts students have to pay for their courses; still a disgrace that shames the ministers responsible. Government trumpets the creative industries but the emphasis is on industry, not creators or interpretors.

Swathes of musicians have left the profession because of Brexit. Music teaching is slashed. Festivals languish, often reduced by many days. Not surprisingly the present generation of ‘culture’ (no longer arts) editors in newspapers and magazines are only interested in TV, lifestyle and industrial music.

So I am angry. I am not going to make the case for the arts again. It has been made a thousand times but, while there is no political will to change direction, there is no point. We are stuck with cloth-eared politicians and obstructive officials who have not shifted attitude from the 1920s – solid institutional philistinism that is unfair on the culture of the original Philistines.

Just for the record, if you actually want this set of countries to get back to being relevant and prosperous again, restore the arts budgets to levels that sustain the work, improve broadcast coverage and the ability of local authorities to provide for their locality. Above all, educate properly and without fees.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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