Funding of the arts and heritage

Written evidence submitted by Marc Sidwell (arts 230)

Addressing the following issues from the Committee's invitation:

What level of public subsidy for the arts and heritage is necessary and sustainable

Whether businesses and philanthropists can play a long-term role in funding arts at a national and local level

Whether there need to be more Government incentives to encourage private donations.


Arts funding from government is a recent invention in Britain and was not intended to last

By its own terms, this experiment with funding has failed, as it has not built the popular audience to sustain the arts at their current level without funding

Britain's history, and the liberal tradition, reminds us of another possibility that can be rediscovered, offering a more sustainable alternative

New technologies have in many cases achieved the goals of greater access that state subisdy has claimed as its motivation

Government incentives to encourage private donations must be handled with the greatest of care -- too often they act to pick winners and dampen competitive investment in challenging and innovative art.

The arts need to be free as in speech, not as in beer

1. While the current scheme of government funding of the arts is now so established as to seem almost inevitable, it is of relatively recent date, a post-war creation that was never intended to last. As Keynes himself wrote when introducing the Arts Council to the nation, it was intended: "to offer a stimulus to such purpose that the artist and the publican each sustain and live on the other".

When therefore it is argued that government funding of the arts is necessary because the arts would not survive without the funding, that is in fact a clear argument that this stimulus programme has failed. The questionable merits of its continuation should then be judged as for any government programme which is failing to meet its targets. The encouragement of arts through central funding has not pump-primed sufficient demand to be confident that it can be safely withdrawn; rather, in the manner of many well-meaning government interventions, it has led to a culture of dependency. In this light, current cuts to arts funding, while substantial, are somewhat irrelevant. If the committee is not prepared to consider the possibility that rather than tinkering at the edges, it may need to scrap the entire machine, it is failing to face a truth that shifting supplementary justifications for arts funding over the years merely paper over.

It is essential, in considering the future of arts funding, to recall both that the arts have a long and proud history in Britain without state funding and that, by its own explicitly laid-out original purpose, arts funding as currently constituted is a failure. It is not an achievement to create an audience for free art that cannot be sustained; nor can such an audience be said to value that art profoundly if they would not pay to experience it.

Many artists have been opposed to government art programmes, including Duke Ellington, W.H. Auden and Edward Hopper. Classical liberals have also traditionally opposed this form of subsidy, feeling that government involvement in an area so deeply associated with the formation of human identity and human meaning should not be under central control, however benign. By contrast, involvement in the arts has always had a strong appeal to authoritarian rulers who follow Stalin in seeing artists as "the engineers of human souls" and believe that such engineers should be in state employ.

Indeed, the greatest classically liberal statement on this subject is also a recognition of the creative achievements of Britain without state subsidy. Frederic Bastiat's 1850 pamphlet, That Which Is Seen and Not Seen, was published the year before the Great Exhibition and he draws on Britain as an example to the world. I quote the relevant passages below:

"I am, I confess, one of those who think that choice and impulse ought to come from below and not from above, from the citizen and not from the legislator; and the opposite doctrine appears to me to tend to the destruction of liberty and human dignity.

"But, by a deduction as false as it is unjust, do you know what economists are accused of? It is, that when we disapprove of government support, we are supposed to disapprove of the thing itself, whose support is discussed; and to be the enemies of every kind of activity, because we desire to see those activities, on the one hand free, and on the other seeking their own reward in themselves.

"Our adversaries consider that an activity which is neither aided by supplies, nor regulated by government, is an activity destroyed. We think just the contrary. Their faith is in the legislator, not in mankind; ours is in mankind, not in the legislator.

"... the grandest and noblest of exhibitions, one which has been conceived in the most liberal and universal spirit -- and I might even make use of the term humanitary, for it is no exaggeration -- is the exhibition now preparing in London; the only one in which no government is taking any part, and which is being paid for by no tax."

The historical evidence gives the lie to the idea that a thriving artistic scene would not exist without state subventions, and the liberal case for the state withdrawing from this area entirely, even taking into consideration such tattered and, in practice, near-fictitious devices as the arms-length principle, I find compelling. It is true that without state funding the arts would take a different form, but the idea that they would vanish is evidently absurd; what we can say for certain is that the state subsidy of unpopular entertainment, which is what a permanent art subsidy, rather than a short-term stimulus scheme, amounts to, need not continue.

In this light it is also important to consider the contribution of new technologies to this debate. Much is often made of the need to increase access to art, but in truth the internet and wide access to inexpensive published books have together done more to achieve this than any access scheme ever could. When the treasures of the world's galleries and performance from the great theatres and opera houses can be streamed to every computer, the case for providing other more elaborate means to achieve that access become moot. Equally, technologies of dissemination are also technologies of association, lowering the barriers to collective fundraising and opening up new avenues to fund the arts not previously available.

2. In this context it is also important to address the much-vaunted idea that Britain has a triple-pillared arts funding system: government, ticket sales and philanthropy. The problem with this model is that it narrows artistic possibilities rather than opening them up -- the government's chosen experts act to pick winners, and draw philanthropic funders nominally outside the government -- and indeed paying arts enthusiasts -- to commit their resources in the same direction. But clearly it would be far healthier if the different pillars were in a position to support different aesthetic choices, to permit creators to explore more completely the space of artistic possibility and promise, rather than being locked in to back a state-determined template of what art should mean. The chilling effect the state's judgement must exert on those areas that do not meet with its approval are inescapable. For this reason it is also worthy of note that while tax deductions on the American model are attractive and far more liberal as a means for government to give support to the arts than subsidy, any introduction of them would require great care not to leave the government still determining the nature of approved art by setting the criteria on which donations were judged to be tax deductible.

Britain has much to be proud of in its arts. But it has not historically made use of government subsidies to support them, for reasons both philosophical and practical. The current experiment must, on its own terms, be judged a failure. While those who have grown into dependency on the state as a result will clearly find it hard to contemplate the alternatives, art will survive and is likely to thrive and grow in variety outside state control. While legislators must always be tempted by the power of their office to believe that they can do more by intervening than by standing back, and while the arts industry is a powerful lobby that will be hard to gainsay, the arts in Britain will be most sustainable outside a system that can impose 64% cuts overnight, and in a healthier relationship with the British public when they do not tell them that they must pay for what they cannot be trusted to want.

October 2010