Does the public feel the pain of arts cuts?

The dust has begun to settle on last week’s funding decisions and, after the initial flurry of relief, anger and - in a few cases - genuine, unbridled happiness, it is time to reflect on where we go from here.

It seems most feel that Arts Council England got it about right. Some individual decisions will be disputed (Shared Experience’s 100% cut appears to have been a particular shock) and there have been some sad losses. But, the consensus is that, given the hand it was dealt by government, the arts council made a good fist of things.

This is a fair assessment - ACE did an impressive job - but I don’t think that the settlement was as bad as the arts council made out, nor, conversely, as good as the government might claim it to be. The truth, as with many things, lies somewhere in between.

The sector was preparing for 15% real term cuts across the board. As it turned out, the average cut in the national portfolio was more like 11% in real terms (and a total cash cut of about £60 million over four years once extra Lottery money for touring was included) which isn’t too far off a cash standstill. That will undoubtedly be very difficult for a lot of companies, but it isn’t the bloodbath that had been expected.

The government didn’t give the arts council a kind funding settlement, but with the gains from the Lottery thrown into the mix, it was not as terrible as it has been portrayed in certain quarters. In fact, if one looks at the total money received from Lottery and grant in aid put together, the cash sum ACE receives is a projected £572 million in 2014/5. That is the same amount it received in the final year of the last Labour government in 2009/10. Yes, the different pots of money can and should be used in different ways, but still, it is a surprising - and somewhat enlightening - figure.

I would like the arts to receive more money from the public purse. But did the sector make a good enough argument before the comprehensive spending review to justify a more generous settlement when nearly all areas of public expenditure were being reined in? No.

If ACE did well with the hand it was dealt, I’m not sure that Jeremy Hunt and Ed Vaizey did much worse with the hand they had to play. This is something the sector must address before it goes into the next comprehensive spending review. Hopefully, there will be more money on offer and the arts will be better placed to make its argument for a larger slice of the cake. But economic arguments for funding the arts are still almost universally woolly and weak. Economic impact surveys do not convince the Treasury and there is no evidence I have seen that conclusively proves that, for example, the 85% of the theatre sector which isn’t subsidised would make any less money in VAT for Treasury coffers without a healthy subsidised sector behind it. We may all know it instinctively, but I’m not convinced the Treasury does.

The arts have been too slow to learn the rules of the game when it comes to convincing Number 11 Downing Street. For example, have you heard of The Green Book?

The Green Book is “HM Treasury guidance for central government, setting out a framework for the appraisal and evaluation of all policies, programmes and projects. It describes how the economic, financial, social and environmental assessments of a proposal should be combined and aims to ensure consistency and transparency in the appraisal process throughout government.” In other words, it is how the Treasury justifies its spending.

Too many leading figures in the subsidised arts world have never heard of this book. It should be something that any organisation in receipt of public money is aware of. How are you meant to win an argument if you don’t know the criteria of the debate?

Meanwhile, as has become apparent from much of the public debate around cuts to the arts, general opinion is not as strongly in support of funding culture as we might like to think. Pitching for cash from the Treasury is a competitive process and when compared to the NHS, schools, even forests it would appear, there just aren’t the same number of votes in putting money into the arts.

This is something else the sector can change. We must convince audiences that the arts are a core part of their lives and help them understand the role public funding plays in its delivery. People must feel ownership of the National Theatre in the same way they feel ownership of the National Health Service.

We must find a way of giving people a feeling of civic pride in the fact that their taxes have helped to pay for the creation of War Horse or the redevelopment of the Everyman in Liverpool. Crucially, this needs to extend to people who might never see War Horse or visit Liverpool, in the same way that people can feel a general sense of pride in the fact that the UK has a National Health Service, even if they might not regularly need to use it themselves. Ditto with the forests.

This won’t be easy - indeed it has been made even harder by the arts council’s cuts to audience development agencies and the in-house savings it must make itself over the next three years. But it is crucial that the sector doesn’t go sleepwalking into the next CSR simply hoping for the best and relying on the same arguments it has been trotting out for the last decade.

1 Comments

At last. Great to see some objective, unemotional commentary on the recent cuts. The job now is to learn to be more persuasive and to educate the government to overturn (if not increase) as much funding as possible as soon as it can. Once the economy has stabilised, we must - as an industry - do all we can to influence thinking with the government, the media and the public. All is not lost forever - the sun WILL come out tomorrow ...

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