A great act of vandalism that will impoverish us all | Polly Toynbee

This culture-gutting coalition claims to care about both happiness and economic growth – so why cut arts funding?

Expect a great howl to ring out on Wednesday morning – and rightly so, at a great act of government cultural vandalism. At 7.30am arts organisations in England learn who has suffered cuts and who has been cast into the abyss altogether. With nearly 15% gouged from an already small budget of £350m, the Arts Council will take the rap for decisions it is forced to make. Yet again the axe is devolved.

Some 200 organisations will be guillotined, and many of the 1,333 that applied for funding will see their grants shrink. Most in the arts regard the new open application system used by Arts Council England as more transparent, with stated criteria, aiming to ensure the best of every art form thrives across all regions. Losers will howl in agony, some may blame the process, and wise ones will blame the government.

But the Arts Council may find few defenders as survivors keep their heads down in sympathy with those thrown to the lions. As chair of the Brighton Dome and Festival – one of many waiting heart in mouth for tomorrow's announcement – win or lose, I shall try to keep to my view that the Arts Council has been fair and open in these miserable times.

This week the Commons select committee did its best to shift blame on to the Arts Council, and divert criticism from the folly of the government's cuts. For lack of recent evidence they dredged up the previous council regime's 2006 fiasco, when the £52m West Bromwich gallery, The Public, went into administration before it opened. But like all startup businesses, the arts need to take risks. Tate Modern, The Sage Gateshead, The Lowry – none could be certain of success: 90% of arts ventures succeed – an exceptionally high rate. The committee accuses the Arts Council of extravagance, but its administration costs of 6.5% are less than most companies.

Labour brought a golden era to the arts after two decades of drought. A 70% rise in funding began with that symbolic opening-up of free museums and galleries. In the decade to 2007, 2m new jobs and £16.6bn in exports were generated by the creative industries. With new money came a demand for change among the old national icons. All were told to open their doors and reach non-traditional audiences. Creative Partnerships brought musicians, writers and artists into schools, focusing on areas where children were least likely to sample the arts. Though research proved how this increased children's educational success, it was abolished in culture secretary Jeremy Hunt's first cuts.

The whole ecology of the arts world changed in the good years. Southbank is an emblem, once a fusty conserver of three orchestras but now blossoming under Jude Kelly as a hub of community activity. Keepers of red plush seating in hushed auditoriums who would shudder at bringing in unruly young people now compete to claim the most authentic community involvement.

Is it enough? Not yet, as the most avid consumers of conventional theatre and opera still look white, middle-aged and middle-class. But from Liverpool to Nottingham to Newcastle, venues boast of big new audiences. Those great cities were regenerated by the cultural cachet of magnificent new arts venues. Outdoor events and festivals draw new audiences and contemporary art is booming; about 76% of people attend an arts event at least once a year. Once "education" was a tick-box obligation, but involving the community has brought new energy, breaking barriers between the idea of "the art" and its audience.

All that flourishing was then; this is now. Cuts go far deeper than the Arts Council's 15%, so eagerly offered by the ambitious culture minister – also known as Attila the Hunt. Sizeable funds came from the regional development agencies – now defunct – and from local councils. The far-sighted have struggled to keep their arts but some have struck off every penny. Universities contributed but they have been stripped to the bone, leaving arts and humanities faculties with no funds for basic teaching. For all that public angst about British civilisation, this is a culture-gutting government. What of Cameron's happiness agenda? If he were serious, arts for everyone would be at its core.

Science and engineering are singled out as engines of growth, and let's hope they are. By implication, arts are a pastime for idle moments, whose unproductive students take useless degrees. But anyone serious about rebalancing the economy would look to Britain's creative industries, the second largest sector after finance. Labour showed how a smattering of state money – in all, about £1bn – has been enough seedcorn to grow a giant beanstalk of an industry. As Labour's ulture spokesman, Ivan Lewis, says, "The King's Speech, Enron and Warhorse started with small sums and created great global commercial success. Our best talents started in publicly funded projects." Rather than cutting the arts and the BBC, a real budget for growth would start here, building on what we already do best.

Instead of investment, the government looks to philanthropy. Last week Vivien Duffield gave an admirable £8.2m to her chosen arts venues. As she did so, she commanded another 20%, or £2m, in tax relief. Charity is a fine thing, but the state – or in this case the Arts Council – is a more trustworthy distributor of taxpayers' money than the whims of wealthy donors. The budget offered a further bonus of inheritance tax relief to anyone leaving 10% to charity in their will: Duffield's pet arts schemes command our cash too; hardly a democratic distribution.

We shall see how well the Arts Council distributes its wretchedly shrivelled pot. They have taken care to encourage the new as well as shore up the established, "to keep the oxygen in the bloodstream". The great titans thrive on the green shoots bursting up beneath their feet. Weaker arts groups were weeded out painfully in 2008, to much fury.

This time, says the Arts Council, every faller will be a grievous loss. Justifying arts spending is hard at a time when old people are without care, children lose their Sure Start and a thousand other wants press in. But the sums are vanishingly small – a few widgets of an aircraft carrier, as one arts person said acidly – while arts investment brings rich returns, in cash and in cultural wealth.

• Polly has responded to some comments below the article here, here, here and here.


Polly Toynbee

The GuardianTramp

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