Oy, who’s nobbled me bread n circuses?

Posted: November 16, 2010 in Article
Tags: , , , , , ,

©Mark Wallinger

While the bitter winds of arts cuts scud menacingly over the Scottish horizon, and the good people of Somerset watch their £345m arts economy get flushed down the lavvy, we have to ask if this is the beginning of the end of public sector funding of the arts.

As citizens of Europe, we have grown accustomed to the state providing bread and circuses in order to stop us revolting. Arts for all – rather than arts for the elite – has been the rallying cry for 60 years.

But we are in a public sector recession. Our access to sustainable arts jobs and quality art consumption is under threat from a cadre who preach the benefits of big society and the munificence of corporate sponsorship.

However, it’s not the arts sector that has been under-performing. The financial sector has dragged us to the brink of this arts armageddon. Yet these plucky free market buccaneers, who have raided pensions, forced the demise of the property market and quashed any hope for young people living without debilitating debt for generations to come, are being touted as the new saviours of the arts industry.

You only have to look at ‘big society’ in South Africa and the USA to understand that the odds of the average citizen accessing the arts are slim to nugatory. Or closer to home, check the wonders of the big society during the Victorian era.

In the largely privately financed US arts world, the average consumer spends £32 per week on entertainment including restaurants, cinema, sports and the arts. In the UK however, the average spend on recreation and culture is £60 per week. Add the £700m in arts subsidies from the state and you can see why our UK arts are considered world class.

The arts in this country are a major financial success story. Between 1997 and 2006 the creative economy grew faster than any other sector, accounting for 2 million jobs and contributing £60 billion to the economy each year, 7.3 per cent of UK GDP.*

Arts and culture are central to tourism in the UK: this was worth £86 billion in 2007 – 3.7% of GDP – and directly employed 1.4 million people. Inbound tourism is a vital export earner for the UK economy, worth £16.3 billion to the UK economy in 2008.

During the Edinburgh International Festival, with concessions, the best of world art can be at your feet for a mere £6. During festival season, restaurants, bars, taxis and hotels are fit to burst. The taxi driver may not be a direct consumer of opera but she certainly won’t turn her back on the extra money a great piece of art brings to her business.

The arts unite and inspire individuals and communities. They feed the soul. They inspire us to outrage, contempt, rapture and quiet reflection. In the hands of a great artist / performer / musician, people can escape the humdrum mundanities and are transported to a world of challenging ideas, engaged emotions and fresh perspectives.

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.

Maybe it’s an age thing. In my youth I was happy to consume mass-produced art that didn’t touch the edges. Now, I yearn for complex characters, intriguing dance, bold visual art and demanding music.

And I don’t want it half-baked and mediocre. I want it affordable, ground-breaking and world-class.

Not much to ask, right? Well, it is to the free market world. The free market dictates that great art is funded by the elite for the elite while the rest of us eat the scraps of what our dwindling purses can afford.

To Europeans in general, and Scots in particular, it is our cultural heritage – nay, our cultural inheritance – to expect access to the greatest art at reasonable prices.

The suits have raided our pensions, our jobs and are about to ransack our sense of who we are.

I’m revolting, who’s with me?

©Fin Wycherley

This post originally appeared in 38 Minutes – the place to bask in modern media

Please comment, I’d love to hear your views.

*If the link for ‘creative economy 7.3% of GDP’ does not take you straight through to the original document, please search for it as “Department for Culture, Media and Sport (2008) Creative Britain: New Talents for the New Economy, London, DCMS.”  It seems it’s been mothballed (archived) already despite being less than 2 years old.

Or try: http://www.culture.gov.uk/images/publications/DCMS_Annual_Report_08_01.pdf

  1. Quin says:

    I can accept all that and, on the face of it, I agree – except I don’t quite get the argument…

    If your figures are correct (and I have no reason to doubt them), then it would appear that the arts are basically highly profitable in their own right. That too seems logical to me since it would be pointless to fund arts if no one wanted them, so clearly there must be a demand…

    So, all that being apparently so, why do the arts need public funding (except perhaps in some niche areas)? Why can’t the arts simply run themselves without funding/sponsorship from anyone?

    • leithtonight says:

      Excellent question. The arts generate a lot of revenue and employment. If you fund Edinburgh International Festival comprehensively, it generates Fringe, Book, TV etc festivals plus city revenues like transport, restos, hotels, etc. Take away the funding, then the revenue generator stops working effectively with a catastrophic knock-on effect for all other businesses.

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