Will funding cuts be good for the arts?

The fallout from Arts Council England's latest review has organisations large and small looking for new ways to fund their output. Is that necessarily a bad thing?

Nicci Gerrard: novelist and writer, and board member of the Poetry Book Society

Hello David – I'm glad to be having this exchange with you.

One Sunday evening last January, 2,000 people of all ages gathered in the Royal Festival Hall to listen to the 10 poets shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize read from their work. It was an extraordinary evening: no gimmicks, just the power of the spoken word and the rapt attention of those who listened. This prize is awarded by the Poetry Book Society, a unique organisation that needs only a small amount of money – less than 0.75% of the grant received by the Royal Opera House – but whose influence ripples across our culture.

On Wednesday, its entire funding was removed. The PBS is just one of the many organisations to have been cut loose or swingeingly reduced by the Arts Council, which is handing down cuts pressed on them by a government with a slash-and-burn policy to the arts (libraries closing, humanities reduced in universities). But the sums involved are tiny: only £118m has been saved – a handful of rich men's bonuses.

There are some things you can't fully quantify. We saved the forests because in some way they represent the soul of our country; so does art, the landscape of the mind.

David Babani: artistic director of the Menier Chocolate Factory

I think we need to look at this issue from a slightly different angle. There need to be cuts. It is not just the arts that are affected. But it does seem grossly unfair that the fate of so many is in the hands of so few. How can one body (the Arts Council) be charged with deciding what is or isn't culturally relevant for both this country's inhabitants and the many international visitors who partake in our incredibly rich cultural scene?

It is not for me to say whether the Poetry Book Society deserves its funding either. It does seem that as we live in an imperfect world, there can be no foolproof set of criteria to decide who is worthy of public money and who isn't. Therefore why even try? We also live in a subjective world – so why should one arts organisation be valued above another?

Surely we should abolish funding being doled out by one body altogether and instead create an open market for arts funding that is decided upon by the taxpayer (by way of tax credits) direct. In that scenario the Poetry Book Society may not be faced with bleakness that it has just been plunged into.

NG First of all, I am not at all sure (in fact, I disagree) that the arts need to be cut at all. It is one of the few areas in which Britain punches above its weight (among the 10 TS Eliot prize nominees there were two Nobel prize winners). It seems to me that the relatively small Arts Council subsidies are a cheap and virtuous way of making Britain a place where people want to visit or come and work, where companies want to relocate to.

I agree with you that the decisions of the Arts Council can be both opaque and baffling. Who knows why the wonderful Shared Experience has lost all its funding, when, for example, the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art's funding has risen 143%? But, messy and frustrating though the process can be, arts subsidy needs a vision of the arts as a whole, across different forms, different regions, sometimes choosing the difficult, the controversial, the neglected. Your call for an open market would just be one step away from abolishing arts subsidy altogether. One thing that the arts should stand against – not all of them, but important parts of them – is the idea that everything can be decided in the market place.

DB I don't think the arts should have been cut either and I am certainly not arguing that they should be. They have. Fact.

If we look at the arts as a whole (both subsidised and commercial) the return is immense compared to other industries – while arts funding represents about 0.07% of GDP, the creative industries contribute 7% to GDP. However as you mention above "there are some things you can't fully quantify" so I would argue that the issue boils down to accountability. Who is the Arts Council accountable to? It doesn't seem to be the general public, as we are not privy to nor do we have any opportunity to influence the way in which they hand out funds. It doesn't seem to be the government, who, as you say, are taking a very scary laissez-faire attitude to the current situation.

As much as we may hate to acknowledge it, the arts is a commodity. True it has many other benefits to both our country, our society and the human race in general but as far as this government is concerned business is business and it feels that, for the good of us all, it has to protect the bottom line. I am saying fine, fair enough, we are all in this boat together – let's take advantage of this situation and find a way for the arts to generate its own funding and naturally cut loose some of the inevitable dead weight through the process of natural selection rather than a warped meritocracy.

NG Accountability? Well, of course, but the problem with government help to the arts is that it works, and it makes money, but not always in ways that are easy to explain to an accountant. You create art schools and you end up with rock musicians (and artists and designers). You create a government broadcaster to educate the nation and you end up with The Goon Show and Monty Python and Doctor Who.

Yes, the arts exist in the real world and anyone involved in arts administration from Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre to the smallest local music group spends much of their time trying to raise money from the private sector. But we have to accept that there are some parts of what we think of as a particularly British culture – from our free museums to little music groups touring schools – that won't be given to us by the market and we'll miss them when they're gone.

The arts has always had to "generate its own funding" but the market isn't the only way. (And are we really "all in this boat together"? Not at a time when so many, in the arts and out of it, are being tossed out of the boat, without life-jackets.)

DB I am afraid I disagree with your concerns that parts of our British culture, free museums etc, won't be given to us by open-market funding. We simply don't know until we try. I am certainly not advocating my idea as flawless, nor am I suggesting that it is the only way. What I am arguing is that maybe there is an alternative to the current system that is more fair and more transparent.

We need to use the unfortunate situation we are in to explore alternative ways to distribute money to the arts and learn from the mistakes that have been made so we do our level best to avoid the uncertainty, pain and destruction to our artistic culture that has been caused by this most recent round of spending cuts in the future.


David Babani and Nicci Gerrard

The GuardianTramp

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