Arts Council chief warns against cuts in arts funding

Alan Davey says government risks losing money as well as creativity if arts funding is cut

Any future government – whether Conservative or Labour – must continue to fund the arts at current levels despite the bitter economic climate, the Arts Council chief urged today.

"The arts ought to be a key part of any civilised government's mission," said Alan Davey, chief executive of Arts Council England, speaking at the Conservative arts conference, Culture is Right, in London.

He added: "I hope any government would not return to a Mills-ian view of the most efficient creation of wealth being the sole aim of any society. [Money for the arts] has an ultimate end that Ruskin knew was important to any society - the creation of beauty, and something that goes beyond the material and straight to who we are."

Davey said he had been alarmed to hear old arguments against arts funding resurrected recently; those that say the best art is produced by starving artists in garrets, and that arts funding only subsidises the pleasure of the rich.

He said: "In recent years a consensus has been building which acknowledges that the arts are a key part of our fabric as a nation; that they contribute to the creative life of the country which is itself a part of what creates our wealth. We're doing something right in this country … So let's not throw it away."

He argued that arts funding was an exceptionally good-value form of public investment. The National Theatre, he said, was typical in that it receives 38% of its income from the public purse, but the rest it earns itself from box-office income and fundraising. "These aren't lazy teenagers we are talking about here. They've got up and found the money they need to build on what they get from government. This is real investment at work – it provides a basis from which bigger things can happen," he said.

And it is the very presence of the public investment – acting like a kind of "kite mark" or vote of confidence – that allows arts organisations to lever in money from private sources, he said. This is a "model of the future, not of the past", he argued – one that shows the arts to be not "a monolithic public service ripe to be cut" but "part of a complex mixed economy, which could provide a model for how public investment could work elsewhere".

The money that the Arts Council puts in to the arts works especially hard, and its absence would be particularly missed, he argued. "For every £1 the Arts Council puts in, £2 is brought from elsewhere. Take away our £1 and you lose £3."

The Arts Council also helps to prepare arts organisations for future sustainability, he said – such as by supporting NT Live, the new initiative whereby National Theatre shows, including this summer's Phèdre with Helen Mirren, are shown in cinemas nationwide.

Davey said he hoped that, with the Arts Council's help, any future culture secretary would convince the Treasury that "not all public spending is bad, that ours works hard, and because of this there is a disproportionate effect when it is cut ... John Major once said: 'Man cannot live by GDP alone.' I'll argue that arts spending adds to GDP but gives you much more."

He added: "The role of artists is to give expression and meaning to the world around us and the role of funders is to support them in what they do best – to challenge, to thrill, to excite and to inspire us; to produce the marvellous and the beautiful. To do so is also rational, economically sound, and is essential to our quality of life."

Other speakers at the two-day conference include Ed Vaizey, the shadow arts minister, and Munira Mirza, the director of arts strategy at the Greater London Authority.


Charlotte Higgins Chief arts writer

The GuardianTramp

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