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Thinking about art and money

I’ve been looking at the headline details of arts funding in the government’s Spending Review. Unsurprisingly, government spending on arts generally is to drop 24% in current spending terms and 32% in capital spending. Currently, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport has an annual budget of £2 billion – just about the smallest ministerial budget, though interesting it’s not a whole lot less than, say, the Foreign Office (£2.2 billion). And unlike the monster departments like Work and Pensions, Defence, Health or Education they’re not in the position of having to fund major capital expenditure or meet benefit entitlements.

Mainly what’s being cut is the CMS core administration budget, though funding to the BBC is being rejigged – the BBC will take over funding for the World Service, which as an independent source of news worldwide is probably where the funding should come from anyway. A bunch of other cuts are being made as well – to the school arts creative partnership programme, support for the British Film Institute, etc. Funding for Arts Council England is cut by almost 30%.

The impact is likely to be felt most in areas such as opera and theatre, classical music and museums which often cannot function – and certainly not take risks on new, innovative work – without some level of subsidy. In terms of the BBC, it may have unfortunate effects in terms of reductions for programming – though one hopes the BBC will continue to do what it does best, news, documentary, cultural programmes and cutting-edge drama, without feeling the need to start competing against the chat shows and reality programmes that grace most of the other channels. However, the Arts Council cuts will probably impact mainly on smaller regional and minority arts organisations, which will be a pity for reasons I’ll explain below.

So the cuts are coming. And I have five ‘first thoughts’ on them.

Firstly, as an author in relatively uneconomic genres, you might think none of this affects me. I write, I sell stuff (sometimes) to magazines that are commercial operations (sort of) and receive no state funding anyway, and make most of my income from writing educational materials. But the cuts do concern me.

They concern me because in the wider scheme of things, I’m a member of a network of small ventures that do receive Arts Council funding – events for reading fiction, websites for regional writers and so forth – and to the extent that they have to scale back or close, I will lose my connections to certain ways of publicising myself. As a white, middle-aged hetero male I’m not going to be directly affected by cuts that involve loss of support for minority groups but those groups are there for a reason and however small a niche they serve, they have a wider social and community importance. Even if I’m not involved in any of them directly their loss is, to a small extent, my loss because they are part of an interlocking network of creative people that I interact with. And I wouldn’t want to minimise their importance – literally in some cases the lifeline they offer – to some creative people from a range of minority populations.

My other thoughts are perhaps more optimistic.

Secondly, one of the things that creatives are good at is treating problems as opportunities. If need be, a literature group can function out of the upstairs room of a bar, got for free because the bar wants the bodies in there and the bar takings. That won’t pay for an organiser or publicity, sure, but there will be ways around that.

Thirdly, a huge amount happens in a purely commercial environment. Magazines, publishers, science fiction conventions and music festivals don’t get public funding anyway. There are plenty of examples of how to do ‘unpopular’, ‘minority’ or ‘niche’ arts that don’t rely on funding. For the kinds of things I’m involved in, the cuts will be a major inconvenience but not, I hope, a disaster.

Fourthly and finally, there’s a certain irony that hard times themselves often furnish the material for art. In the long view, that was true of the Thatcher years of the 1980s, when cuts of all sorts generated an explosion of art, music and writing that took the hard times – of the artists and of people generally – as their subject matter.

Fifthly and finally, the cuts are likely to mean some regional theatres closing, orchestras downsized, and so forth. And this is regrettable. But it may have some interesting implications, as those who have previously had some level of comfort from state funding are pushed towards ‘marginal’ or ‘niche’ ways of doing things and perhaps into collaboration with those of us who have had – apart from the small amount of money facilitating our social networking – no slice of the budget to start with.

Culture and the arts are and will remain important. They define who we are and reflect on aspects of our human existence and identity. They won’t stop being important, and despite the cuts creative work will continue to be done. In different ways, no doubt, and for many, less comfortable ways. But there’s one thing about creative people – they don’t ever stop being creative about their art and how they get it out to the public.

 

 

 

 

 

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