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Some arguments for funding the arts…
Sixty years ago William Beveridge nominated five symptoms of a failing society – want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. A sixth has since been added: creative poverty. The arts, claims this government, are “at the heart of what it means to be a fully developed human being.” (DCMS, 2004). This is surely true, and as a truth it must be supported, tangibly, by the policies of any democratic government.
The arts in this country are also a financial success story. The income from creative industries makes a massive contribution to the UK economy, generating revenues of around £112.5 billion and employing more than 1.3 million people, which is 5% of the total employed workforce in the UK. Arts exports contribute around £10.3 billion to the balance of trade, and the industries account for over 5% of GDP. The value of the creative industries to UK gross domestic product is, therefore, greater than the contribution of any of our manufacturing industries. In the year 1997-98, output grew by 16%, compared to under 6% for the economy as a whole. All this is achieved, contrary to mainstream assumptions, with minimum state support. Subsidy as a whole generally equates to, on average, 25% of total arts budgets; very few, if any, organisations are more than 50% funded by the state. To take one example of cost efficiency, UK theatre received £54 million in subsidy in 2008. It paid back nearly £75 million just in VAT in London alone. That’s quite a return.
The arts are not only of direct economic benefit to the Treasury. They are central to urban regeneration (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Glasgow, to name a few cities whose centres have been remodelled around the galleries, concert halls, museums and theatres that came first), they lead to a boom in local retail and service industries (construction, restaurants, bars, etc.), and they enhance and deepen local educational opportunities. Then there’s the effect on our national profile. For example, of the 187 academy awards nominations given to British actors, writers and directors in the past 30 years, 145 went to individuals whose careers began and were nurtured in the subsidised theatre. Our musicians, conductors, curators and writers are world leaders, thanks to state support. This is a global legacy.
In this country agriculture, manufacturing, construction and many other industries, including communications and computing, receive far more (both proportionately and absolutely) in direct subsidy than do the arts, even though each of these sectors contributes less in real terms to the economy. Yet it is the position of the arts for which we have continually to fight. The removal of subsidy would mean that most galleries and museums in this country would close, as would all concert halls and producing theatres. Even a small series of further cuts would cut a swathe through these places and surrounding communities and businesses. There would be no protection for the great artefacts of the past, which would be either locked in cellars or sold abroad, and no development of those of the future. The landscape would be truly barren. Art consists not only of the so-called elite forms of metropolitan opera or minority-interest visual art, it is also every provincial museum school children visit and the galleries visited by many millions of people across the UK every week. It is the local pantomime and the National Theatre. It is very often the band playing in a small venue and the orchestras at the Proms. It is the novels we read and the films we download. More people interact with art in this country than with any other single activity – 90% of us, according to another independent study. More people visit theatres every year than football stadia. Nothing could be less elitist and more popular than art.
A mature democracy should have the courage and the understanding to see the debt it owes its artists, and to continue to support them, because what it gets in return – economically, socially, aesthetically, philosophically – is almost immeasurably greater than that which it dispenses. Art, very simply, is how we comment on our world, how we speak truth to power. It promotes equality and solidarity, it is a vital form of experiment and risk. It comforts, offers consolation and escape. It challenges, confronts and exposes. It tells us who we are at given moments in history, and articulates our relationships with the world around us. Legislative change, political reform, and serious social improvement have all regularly resulted from artistic activity – often, if not usually, because it has been financially supported by the fabric of a state.
As we emerge from a recession, support for the arts makes more sense than ever. They are a proven short cut to economic renewal and a vital channel for the expression of discontent and the proposal of improvement. They are a mirror held up to the state of the nation, allowing us to see things as they are, and to see how they might be altered for the better. If nothing else, the boom in arts attendance that occurs in a recession shows that people need them more now than ever, if only for escape and entertainment. They are, quite simply, something we should be proud to hold at the centre of our sense of who we are.
What a fantastic article. It is this type of statistical research that makes the biggest difference. What people can’t see in black and white they don’t believe!
Thank God for the artistic community. I personally could not survive without them. They are food for my mind and my soul.
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