It is certain that any Government facing the need to make the scale of public spending cuts required to solve Britain’s debt crisis would be at least tempted to hammer soft targets in order to limit the impact on the more emotive areas of schools, housing, transportation and social services.
It is to the coalition’s credit that the UK’s arts scene has not been singled out for unfair treatment in order to protect other public sector budgets. That is not to say arts organisations across the country will not feel the pain, but a 30 per cent funding cut over the next four years is no better or worse than the spending axe hanging over local and central government.
Arts Council England, which has the unenviable responsibility for carving up a significantly smaller cake, has shown an open minded approach to its task. The easiest, and most unsatisfactory, approach would have been simply to pass on cash cuts on a pro-rata basis to all of the groups currently in receipt of funding. Rather than take this route, the Arts Council has thought seriously about a new system for awarding grants which aims to take art to a wider community.
In Birmingham and the West Midlands, for example, seven largely community-based groups will receive funding for the first time. Twelve other organisations, including DanceExchange and then Fierce! festival, will actually see their funding increase.
That leaves 31 organisations facing funding cuts, including the likes of Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery, the Repertory Theatre, Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Nineteen other organisations, sadly, will lose Arts Council funding completely, including Malvern Theatre, the Contemporary Dance Society and the Writers in Prison Network.
Paradoxically, at times of national hardship, the arts scene has an important role to play in raising morale. Theatres and cinemas did not open at the start of the Second World War, but quickly re-opened when it was realised that closure sent the wrong message about the spirit of Britain.
The American actress Stella Adler put it like this: “Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one.” Her contemporary, Edith Wharton, noted that art is on the side of the oppressed.
Of course, Ms Adler and Ms Wharton did not have to cope with the harshest public spending cuts for 50 years, although the US Great Depression was hardly a walk in the park.
Royal Shakespeare Theatre Artistic Director Michael Boyd sounds the right note today when he makes it clear that arts organisations big and small are going to have to be much cuter about the way they attract sponsorship. Clearly, the likes of the RSC and other major players can do much to assist smaller arts groups with back office requirements and fundraising.
The Government, also, has a role to play by encouraging philanthropic donations and bursaries through tax breaks as well as making sure that Whitehall departments and local government work more closely together to develop a national arts strategy.
Only the dullest Philistine would dismiss the impact that the latest cuts will have on Birmingham, a city renowned for its eclectic arts scene from the ballet and symphony orchestra to the tiny street theatres.
Is it too much to hope that when the economic war has been won, we will move to the sunlit uplands of arts provision for the masses? Politicians might find that such a policy is more popular than they supposed.