Socialists (of all parties) like to caricature the debate about arts subsidies as being pro or anti the arts. The idea that unsubsidised art might be better than the subsidised alternative is a notion not even to be contemplated. If a theatre was not subsidised would it necessarily close? Or would it have to put on plays that the public actually wanted to see? There are plenty of successful unsubsidised theatres.
The critique on arts subsidies by Sir Kingsley Amis from over 30 years ago still applies. He said arts subsidies cause:
"…plays without plots, a canvas entirely covered with black paint offered as a picture, poems that are meaningless patterns of letters – I needn't go on."
Local councils around the country spew out vast sums of money in this area. Often Conservative councils have managed to maintain their art funding by being more efficient. I can understand why this is a point of pride. But whether their arts spending is of any benefit is dubious. In the ward I represent, Ravenscourt Park, there is POSK, the Polish Cultural Centre. It thrives with many artistic events. It has a theatre, a jazz cafe. There is dancing, cabaret, exhibitions. It has no sibsidy from the council or anyone else that I know of.
In the neighbouring ward is the Irish Cultural Centre. It used to be part of the local council – funded by it (£130,000 a year), owned by it, run by it. Now it is entirely independent. The building has been sold to reduce the council's debt. As a result it not only survives but is flourishing. The site is being expanded with a new cafe and concert hall and the number of activities increased. Sign up for your child's whistle lessons here.
The Battersea Arts Centre offers a similar success story. When it was funded by Wandsworth Council it was a dreary agitprop outpost. The bookshop, stocking Leftist tracts, lost money and so even did the bar. Now that it is no longer subsidised, it has improved beyond recognition as a bright venue fizzing with activity.
The Merlin Theatre in Frome has lost its £211,000 subsidy from Somerset County Council. Its director Claudia Pepler says:
"We've tried not to change it too drastically. But we've not been able to do the more challenging or riskier work – we've had to go to safer companies and safer, more classical shows so our audiences grow."
In other words, performances that Miss Pepler thinks the people of Frome wish to see. Not that I accept that private enterprise leaves the arts incapable of risk, innovation or variety. The market is flexible – think of all the pub theatres, for example, and all the weird and wonderful material they offer.
In Leeds the Red Ladder theatre company gets a subsidy from Labour-run Leeds City Council (plus £160,000 a years from the Arts Council.) There are lots of socialist propaganda outfits masquerading as arts organisations. At least the Red Ladder theatre company is honest in making clear that its main purpose is to promote a "radical socialist" message. But why should those of us who aren't "radical socialists" be obliged to pay for it? The council saves money ending weekly bin collections, increasing childcare charges, and scrapping school uniform grants. But it can still find money for the really important priorities like subsidies for the City's "radical socialist" theatre goers.
Labour-run Newcastle City Council have halved their arts subsidies saving £600,000 a year. Good for them. The money they are still spending will be via the Newcastle Cultural Fund with an emphasis on matching donations and sponsorship. I doubt the artistic life of the city will be any worse as a result of the change.
Westminster City Council has saved £350,000 by cutting arts subsidies. A whole lot of "projects" and "workshops" which sounded pretty dreary and self-indulgent are having the flow of money cut off.
For instance Union Dance "promotes inclusive perceptions of identity and culture through exploring diverse dance forms." Paddington Arts has an annual report with pictures of graffiti and tower blocks. All breakdancing and "slam poetry." Great concern to be "relevant" rather offer anything "elitist." The lazy assumption is that for young people living in Paddington classical music isn't relevant. The soft bigoty of low expectations made flesh. The mindset with these outfits is of box ticking and pitching to committees rather than offering something of any value.
The scandal is not that their funding is being cut. The scandal is that it was provided in the first place.
We should make government more efficient. But we should also have less government. Councils should be encouraging the arts. One way of doing that is reducing the Council Tax so we can afford to go to more concerts, plays and exhibitions. Another way is to host events – open up parks for literary festivals in giants tents. Or exempt theatres from Business Rates. So councils should offer encouragement and facilitate the relationship between the performers and the public rather than getting in the way. But the old model of handing out money probably does more harm than good.